Digital Exhaust: The Forgotten Internet

Unrecognized, unused, unmonitored, and unloved data.

Ranjan here.

The other day I happened upon some long-hidden channels in our company Slack. They were all feeding in various posts from Reddit and Twitter via IFTTT. Triggers like "New hot post in /r/todayilearned" or "If new tweet by specific user @techmeme" were populating hundreds of Slack posts a day. This had been going on for a few years and we had completely forgotten about it. I dug deeper and realized I had Twitter favs being saved to Google Sheets, Youtube Watch Laters being emailed, maybe tens to hundreds of thousands of little data bits being transferred between apps.

It made me think about digital exhaust.

Digital (or data) exhaust is a term I had previously encountered in the context of IoT research. McKinsey defines it as:

As companies and organizations go about their business and interact with individuals, they are generating a tremendous amount of digital “exhaust data,” i.e., data that are created as a by-product of other activities.

It’s primarily used in the context of the incalculable data that will be emitted by IoT sensors in our coming smart world, and how a large volume will be unrecognized and unmonitored. This IFTTT discovery had me wondering about all the data that is floating around. The data that you haphazardly allow the collection of, by companies who don't really care about it.

If 40% of the internet is fake, what percentage is just forgotten?

The Business Parts

These IFTTT recipes were purposeful, they weren’t by-products. I just forgot about them. How many of these recipes are out there sucking up server bandwidth? What does the AWS bill look like for these abandoned activities and how much money does AWS itself make?

How is the forgotten internet distorting company valuations and strategy?

You can imagine exhaust can be a good thing when raising money. IFTTT could cite the billions of actions being taken, as well as count every single person who ever signed up as an active user. Can pointed out this is a very difficult engagement measurement challenge, as these functions work best when running in the background. It must be causing some problems as IFTTT just hired a "turnaround specialist" as its new CEO two months ago.

The Funny Parts

Just think about every tiny automation you've allowed. Every little signup flow question and Facebook sign-in you unthinkingly said yes to.

Some of these are kind of funny. I still get email notifications from Strava about the runs my Facebook friends have just finished (note: that's after deleting Facebook in full last year, meaning the friend list clearly still lives on in other apps). I can even see where they run, and enjoy watching when one friend who usually clocks in 10+ mile runs charts a 0.3 mile “run”. Maybe they had a rough night before.

They're clearly using Strava to purposefully track their runs, but I'm guessing they are thinking someone from their MBA class 10 years ago, and not even their current Facebook friend, is seeing all this.

The Not-So-Funny Parts

The Strava exhaust gets scary when you learn it was giving away the locations of secret US army bases. A friend told me another not-so-funny exhaust anecdote:

He recently sold his house, and as part of the move-out, made sure to factory reset his Nest. About six months later, he discovered a forgotten IFTT recipe was registering every time the Nest went into Away Mode, meaning he knew when no one was in the house. Somehow the hard reset didn't break the IFTTT connection. We can keep this mishap in the "funny" column, but can easily see how this knowledge in the wrong hands would graduate it to the troubling column.

When talking about this newsletter edition with Can, he recalled a site from 2010 called pleaserobme.com. It showed how Foursquare check-in data could be used by burglars. People were apparently trying to wake us up long before Cambridge Analytica.

The Strategic Part

Can and I have both been writing on the idea of data-as-a-liability, and it feels even more relevant in the context of digital exhaust. The default behavior of every company has been to slurp up as much user data us robotically possible, without regard to its management or unforeseen consequences. The default behavior of every user has been to opt-in to everything.

This amassing of data has been unquestioningly an asset over the past decade. For all the data a company leverages into establishing a competitive advantage, what about all the data they accumulate and don't really care about?

When LinkedIn tricks us into allowing our email contacts to be scraped, they are very consciously doing it to grow the network. But what about when Facebook, in this week's scandal, tells us that a small design change is what led to 1.5 million users "unintentionally uploading" their contact lists. Let's take Facebook at their word (hey, its a thought experiment!). Just imagine all the tiny product changes and connections that every single tech company, biased towards sucking up data, has innocently implemented over the years. All that data unknowingly floating around, with no one paying attention.

Signing off til next week

....I planned on extending this post a bit more in the geopolitical context of Europe vs. China vs. the U.S., but….my wife just went into labor with our 2nd kid so I'll leave you to ponder the Forgotten Internet, and ask you to check in on your IFTTT and Zapier accounts, and cut off all apps connected to Facebook and Twitter. Wish us luck!


WHAT I’M READING

TikTok Brings Chinese-Style Censorship to America’s Tweens: This is just an insane stat about the sheer volume of Facebook ad spend by quasi-rival TikTok:

[Bytedance] is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to advertise on Facebook in the hope of luring away more users. Over the past three months, for instance, 13 percent of all the ads seen by users of Facebook’s Android app were for TikTok, says app-analytics firm Apptopia.

Spicy Hotpot Makes Couple $6 Billion Richer in 2019: One of the most important rules in investing is to not regret the money you could've made. But as the husband of a Taiwanese wife who has converted me to a hot pot obsessive, there's a part of me that has been watching Haidilao's stock fly and wish I had gotten in. Additional fun fact, Harvard Business Review wrote a case study on the chain back in 2011.

Last year, revenue surged 60 percent to 17 billion yuan ($2.6 billion), and that’s helping to push the stock up more than 75 percent this year. At about $21 billion, the company’s market value is now higher than Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc.

Facebook's role in Brexit — and it's threat to democracy: I tend to read so much on Facebook and disinformation that I end up a bit numb. Instead of human emotion, I end up writing newsletters about the impact of data management on business model transformation. Carole Cadwalladr's TED talk from this week brought a bit of humanity back to the problem:


I drafted this in Substack yesterday afternoon (Thursday), and as sending time now, am excited to relay the news - John Jay Roy-Yang was born late last night 👶🏼♥️