Who Is Intern Linda?
The ghost in the big data machine.
This is the place where I’m supposed to say something about myself but, like a bird staring blankly into a mirror, all I could come up with was “Linda Yu is a strong contender for the Sleeping Till Noon World Championships.” That didn’t seem long enough. So instead I have outsourced this job to a third party: Big Data. Yesterday I combined all 1,229 of the interest keywords that Google, Twitter, and Facebook have for me into one big Excel spreadsheet, so let’s see who they think I am.
According to Google I am 25-34 years old and in a relationship, but not a parent; I am female, but have "Men's Interests"; I rent in either the East of England, London, or Los Angeles; I have a bachelor's degree; I am looking for a job in marketing, public sector, education, admin, or construction; and I speak English, Japanese, and Portuguese. Facebook lists me as "Starting Adult Life" as a woman, feminist, and Democrat international student with a "human sexuality." Which I guess means either that I am sexually oriented toward humans, or that I have a porn addiction.
All three platforms agree that I am interested in some combination of fashion, birdwatching, celebrities, anime, movies, video games, politics, EDM, government agencies, and also... bread? Although each site has its own more unusual tags for me such as: baby bottle, Yuzuru Hanyu, real salt lake, full-size car, Ezra Klein, 天才!志村どうぶつ園, Church of England, paladins, Uzbekistan, Cheng Xiao, standardised & admissions tests, American Chemical Society, freight transport, Greta Thunberg, egg recipes, ink cartridge, Dogecoin cryptocurrency, Albany, exoplanets, cosplay, Count Binface, يوسُف, personal growth, and formal war.
I've indexed this information about myself without regard for whether it is correct—some of the things written above are wrong, although I’ll let you guess which ones—but I wondered what the total accuracy of these sites was. So I decided to classify each term by whether I considered it an "interest." Most of this was straightforward, but I did take some license on more nebulous terms like "cup" or "fields of study." For some categories such as "keyboard enthusiasts," I selected yes not because I like keyboards, but because I'd read about people who do. You might say I'm a keyboard enthusiast enthusiast. In another case, Google is very insistent that I care about "Halloween & October 31st," which surprised me since I haven't celebrated the holiday in years, until I realised that when I can't remember the names of either Martin Luther or The 95 Theses, I would google "Halloween Wittenberg Castle." No comment on how much of my brain is devoted to thinking about the Protestant Reformation.
I went into this experiment confident that these platforms don't know me, but I was surprised to find I agreed with about 79 percent of Facebook's selections and 82 percent of Google's. Twitter was the one that lagged behind with only a 46 percent success rate, but it seemed like the site went for quantity over quality. For instance, if Twitter decided I had a general interest such as actors, famous wrestlers, or "business figures," it would also list multiple individuals related to the category, even if I had no idea who they were.
This is definitely only the smallest slice of data these sites have on me. I've held all three accounts for over ten years, so I’m sure there is far more subtle information about my behaviour and interests that gets fed into their algorithms and linked with data on other people. In a paper on "surveillance capitalism", Shoshana Zuboff argues that part of the problem with actual "big data" is that there is so much information collected that no human could possibly audit it like I just did. (DOI: 10.1057/jit.2015.5) We are simply operating on a misguided blind faith that in the aggregate, this information is correct enough. Further, by trading our data for these supposedly free services, we end up inadvertently working for the platforms, which loop the data we produce back into influencing our behaviour. This leads to some bigger questions about what political action means when it is conducted online. How does this shape the nature of our activism, ideas, or opinions?
But bringing it back to myself, lately I've been thinking about how I want to live. Graduating from Tabs today feels fitting since I'm graduating from university tomorrow as well—nearly a decade after I first started. Since I first dropped out of university seven years ago, I've spent a lot of time thinking about my value as a person outside of any defining job, achievements, or school. But now that I’ve asked the platforms, I finally know: it’s my untapped passion for cardio training equipment.
As she forever ponders the Protestant Reformation on the stair machine, one must imagine Intern Linda happy. This is officially an Intern Linda appreciation thread, in addition to our usual weekly check-in. If you’re a subscriber, please: