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Are our emotions for sale on the internet?

A few years ago, we told you about the attention economy, whose Herbert Simon was the first researcher to formulate the concept:  within a society where messages are becoming more and more numerous, attention has become a scarce resource, more precious than the information itself. We remember those words by former CEO of TF1 Patrick Le Lay: « What we sell to Coca-Cola, it’s available human brain time. […] ».
Our attention is over-loaded every day, and we are always available. The indirect consequence of this solicitation is that we can sometimes feel as dispossessed of our time as techniques to capture it has become more sophisticated.
After our attention, our emotions seem to be for sale. In their book, The emotional web, two teacher-researchers Camille Alloing and Julien Pierre talk about a «digital emotional capitalism». In other words, they talk about the processing and use of our emotions as data by the big actors of the web.

But what does it mean? This means that the big actors of the web -mostly from Silicon Valley- set up means of tracking our emotions to sell them to big companies and brands. They sell advertisers samples of the internet users who are the most sensitive and receptive to their business proposals as these ones are adapted and customized. A true economic model.

But technically speaking, how does it work? How do they do to recognize our emotions? For example, take the boss of social networks, Facebook, who does the so-called « sentiment analysis » setting up devices able to analyze the data we provide them freely and even unknowingly: likes, clicks, comments, etc. The variants added the « Like » button also express the emotions with the corresponding reactions: love, laugh, sad, wow and mad. All these are raw materials to feed this new Facebook’s economic model. The terms used in our comments –and even our private messages- are also under study to create major groups of emotions –but very universal- and classify users in the categories « anger », « sadness », « joy », etc.
There is another surprising and little-known method: selfies are a wealth of information for the start-up specializing in facial recognition. Someone smiling on the pictures will be identified as a happy person.

All these involuntary contributions allow web giants to create emotional profiles of the users they resell to appropriate advertisers. If the economic model may be relevant, this way of working left us wondering regarding Privacy Enhancing Technologies and may become a real tool of governance. Camille Alloing wonders “where those data go, how are they processed? Our emotions and perceptions are ours. At no point, they shall not become an economic lever.

This emotion market is not limited to social networks. The Apple Watch already knows if we are happy or not listening to the voice. Even if it is something of an over-simplification to think our emotions are as simple and similar as that, it seems important to be aware of the situation. US entrepreneur Seth Godin wrote that « we are all weird ». Our emotions are too. At klokers, we find it important to defend this idea of free will. Our creativity and our freedom of action are ours, so let’s keep some of our emotions into the secret place of our souls…



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