When I was in high school in the 90s back in those days when the Internet was still new and wondrous, there was a kind-of-scam called Who's Who Among American High School Students that took advantage of the fact that people still loved printed things.
It was a book, published starting in 1967, full of the names and accomplishments of high school students in the U.S. who excelled academically. If you were one of those students, you would get a letter in the mail congratulating you and inviting you to send in your headshot, bio, and a check for around $55 if you wanted a copy of the book with your photo included. Lots of parents of high school students forked over the money because they thought this book of profiles mattered, that college admissions officers looked at it, that it would lead to scholarship money, or that it would lead their child to be put on other, more important lists. By most accounts though, the only purpose of the book was to make money off students' vanity, with the publisher buying marketing lists of students with high GPAs to target.
With the rise of the Internet and the fact that students could create their own, more voluminous profiles on Facebook, the company that published the book went bankrupt in 2007. It seems hilarious now to think back on this tome, a book of profiles that no one would ever look at, sitting on thousands of dusty bookshelves in homes across America. It had monetized that era's "profile anxiety," which came from not having been profiled enough. Now "profile anxiety" comes from it happening too often and without our ability to exercise control over it.
In the digital age, it is very, very easy to profile people. And I mean that in both senses, in that it is easy to publish a profile about someone thanks to an endless supply of pixellated ink, and easy to gather information about someone thanks to our ever-increasing online footprints and the explosion of offline data collection. In the last month, our anxiety about being profiled seems to have come to a head.
First, we freaked out about Peeple, a not-yet-launched website that plans to be the "Yelp for People." The two women founders of the site said the app would let anyone who knew someone's cell phone number leave a positive or scathing review of that person, "professionally, personally, or romantically." It is the closest thing yet I've seen to the rating system in Gary Shteyngart's near-future novel Super Sad True Love Story where everyone's credit, personality and fuckability score are publicly broadcast constantly through a VR interface. After intense online criticism and harassment, Peeple founder Julia Cordray announced that, when Peeple launched, it would be opt-in.
So I guess we won that battle.
Then, we freaked out over a profiling system run by someone who is unlikely to cave in the face of a social media backlash. After a U.K. scholar in Chinese Internet law translated a state pronouncement, the Internet became aware of China's plan for a new "social credit system," in which Chinese tech giants Tencent and Alibaba will give citizens scores based on what it knows about their online activity and purchases. It's much like our FICO credit score in the U.S. determining whether people can get loans or cell phone plans, but the Chinese companies running the programs also bragged that high scores would result in perks, like faster hotel check-ins and expedited visa processing (to the reported annoyance of China's central bank). A hyperbolic post by an entrepreneur who founded the Swedish Pirate Party claimed, based on unknown source material, that buying video games or associating with people with controversial political opinions will hurt Chinese citizen's scores. Based on the somewhat dubious report, the system was quickly condemned as dystopian by nearly everyone, from the ACLU to science fiction writer Charlie Stross.
The public lash-out against the nascent system, unhinged from facts about it, reflects just how paranoid we are about how our data can be used against us, and how profiles might be used to control our behavior. (Tech in Asia has a good post dispelling some of the hysteria around the score.)
"It certainly could become this bad but I think [it's] a long way from it," said Bill Bishop, an expert on China who writes the Sinocism China Newsletter, about the Chinese credit system.
A spokesperson for Ant Financial Group, the division of Alibaba behind Sesame Credit, the first credit agency to launch the scoring system in China in January 2015, told me they weren't using materials published on social media platforms, but were instead getting their data about "financial and consumption activities" from public agencies, including the Ministry of Public Security, the Supreme People's Court, The Ministry of Education and the State Administration for Industry and Commerce, and from other partners.
TenCent, the other Chinese company running a credit score system, does use social media, according to China Daily. When I asked Ant's spokesperson whether buying video games hurt a person's score, she did not respond. (I'll update if she does.)
It may well be dystopian but we do live in a world where we will be profiled, whether we want to be or not. And the tools available to profile us will only continue to expand, from a little-known FBI team profiling would-be killers to the new tool we're all obsessed with at Fusion: Crystal, a program that combs through a person's online footprint to give you a startlingly revealing breakdown of their personality type and the exact right way to phrase your email to them.
The difference from the old world of Who's Who is that instead of being desperate to be profiled, we're overwhelmed by how many there are. And instead of paying to be on a list, we are in, some cases, paying to stay off of them. We can flip out over some of these new profilers, and maybe even convince a few of them to back down, but they are inevitable and unstoppable… unless the government decides that rather than creating new profiles about us, it should pass more laws like the Fair Credit Reporting Act, that give us a right to know when profiles are used to reject us and correct them when they are wrong.
On that front, there may be stormy waters ahead. Next month, the Supreme Court will hear a case filed by an unemployed Virginia man who sued data broker Spokeo for including inaccurate details in its profile of him (which were actually more flattering, saying he was more educated and wealthier than he actually is). Spokeo argued the suit should be thrown out, saying the man can't prove that its inaccurate profile actually hurt him, and that people shouldn't be able to sue a company unless they can demonstrate actual harm. If Spokeo, which is backed by amicus briefs from Experian, Facebook, Google, and Yahoo, wins, it will mean that not only will people have a hard time challenging the creation of profiles about them, but a harder time challenging companies that produce profiles about them that are wrong.