Kevin Cheng  

Information: The New Currency

August 6th, 2004 by Kevin Cheng :: see related comic

Like a tag team, this week it’s Tom’s turn to take off for the weekend and my turn to share this week’s comic. There seems to be a lot of examples of law suits over experience recently. Mark Hurst talked about spending more on usability instead of marketing - these days, we’re seeing money spent on lawsuits instead of user experience. Examples of such cases include Accessible Odeon and BugMeNot. Newspapers want our information, but we don’t want to give it to them. Instead, hundreds or thousands of John Does are probably in the NYTimes database - many of whom I’m sure live in Beverly Hills 90210 for some strange reason. Web sites want our information, we want their content. Exactly how much is our information worth?Last year, I happened upon a calculator which showed you the dollar amount your information might be worth. Your age would be worth some amount but not as much as finding out your income and address, which in turn would be less valuable than your drivers license number. All very interesting but fairly subjective. If someone asked me, “how old are you?” my response would probably not be, “I’ll tell you for five bucks.”

We are in a bit of a stalemate with commercial websites. The websites have some quality content they’re willing to share but they want to make money. We want that quality content and we’re not inclined to pay for it. So instead, we’ve reached an unspoken barter system where information is what we sell them.

For numerous reasons, we’re typically wary of divulging information. The information can be used to spam you (electronically or otherwise), it takes time to enter, and some information you’d just rather keep to yourself. We have some thoughts on the time to enter criteria that we’ll share another time.

The flip side is that information can actually buy more than traditional currency in some respects. Amazon is probably the more well known example of personalization based on purchase and rating history. Using information we give them (knowingly or otherwise) we are improving our own experiences.

The difference is that I know when information is used to my benefit. Any other information I give out (annual income?!) is more suspect. So rather than an arbitrary dollar amount assigned to each piece of information, maybe we should look more at the value based on the information’s attributes:

I = VT / AP

I - perceived cost of information to owner of information
V - validity of the information
T - time and effort to enter the information
A - availability of the information elsewhere
P - potential value to the owner of the information

You can’t do arithmetic with this formula but what you can immediately discern is how much you’re giving away, or if you’re a website, how much you’re asking for. If information is inaccurate, it is worthless whilst information that is readily available will lower the perceived cost. But why does potential value information that will yield more value decrease the cost of the information? Shouldn’t information cost more then? The difference is that we’re talking about perceived cost. I wouldn’t normally give a web site my every measurement, for example, but if the site was a clothing store and they could tailor sizes to my fit then the information seems trivial for me to give.

Using this relationship, commercial sites can evaluate how much they’re asking of their visitors. Instead of asking for a full page of information ranging from interests to current number of pets, they can look at the factors governing our willingness to impart information. That is, unless they include the formula

L = P

Where L = lawsuit.

Other Related Links:
Building a Web Fit for All (BBC)
What Me, Register? (Wired)
News Site Registration (Simon Willison)
title=”Damage in Web Design”>Damage in Web Design (Jeffrey Veen)

11 Responses to “Information: The New Currency”
Julian wrote:

That whole “Free iPod” thing seems to be proof of this.

I’m still not sure if I want an iPod enough to attempt it and subject 5 friends to it.

Kevin Cheng wrote:

Wow. I hadn’t heard of this promotion until you mentioned it but that is definitely a perfect example. I won’t link the site because I’m not a fan of the promotion based on the Terms and Conditions but if anyone is interested, they can search for it easily enough.

The promotion is an offer for an iPod Mini or 20Gb iPod G4 provided you 1) provide information to them that’s valid and 2) get five other people to do the same. That includes a mailing address, however. They then hand off your information to advertisers and you’re essentially at their mercy. They even admit that you can’t discontinue an account - you have to remove yourself from EACH advertiser’s list.

Very high cost but very high potential value. I want an iPod (or Mini) but I don’t want to spam myself, much less my friends. I would say they are increasing the perceived cost of the information significantly because it is not just your own information anymore.

… How much does it cost to open 5 PO Boxes? ;)

Julian wrote:

I didn’t even think of reading the terms and conditions because I’m not all that used to terms and conditions being so forward and honest.

Based on the perceived value of the information (to use your terms :) ) and the potential value of getting a free iPod, though, I knew there *had* to be a catch. That’s probably part of the reason that asking for too much information can be bad–the customers/users will think that there may be something going on behind the scenes if a particular site is asking for seemingly strange or out-of-the-ordinary information.

Kevin Cheng wrote:

Well percevied VALUE of the information I’m giving is important. i.e., what exactly do I get for telling you this information? How are you improving my experience? In the case of the newspapers, targetted ads is simply not enough of a bonus to warrant giving out reams of information. Now if I knew it would accurately tailor my news based on say, my rankings of articles I read, that’s information I don’t mind giving then.

bgm wrote:

This is a classic:

Carolyn Snyder wrote:

I find it ironic - but not inappropriate - that responding to this column requires some personal information :-) .

It strikes me that a variable is missing from your formula - let’s call it R. It stands for trust in the entity asking for the info. It belongs in the denominator because when it’s large it decreases the perceived cost. I don’t really mind divulging my income or other personal details to some reputable online panels I’m a member of. Giving the same info to a spammer might require holding a metaphorical gun to my head.

Kirsten wrote:

Is anyone else a little uncomfortable with the ongoing commodification of privacy? According to Article 12 of the UN’s universal declaration of Human Rights “no one shall be subjected to interference with his privacy…”

I don’t want to trade my personal information for web content. Is it ‘back to the public library’ for me? Or can we envisage some model of content access where privacy is respected?

I don’t mind providing sufficient personal information so that I can pay a price for access, if there are legal safeguards against that information being shared. My preference is to pay with money rather than information.

Perhaps content providers could offer opt-in strategies where users can select from either providing commodified personal information or providing payment.

Dermo wrote:

Aha, a topic where I’m not just going to play gerbils acrobat :)

The Direct Marketing Asoociation’s Preference Services enable you to register your wish to opt out of receiving unsolicited messages by e-mail, mail, telephone or fax. Organisations are obliged either by law or by Codes of Practice to ensure that your wishes are adhered to.

If you’re still getting unsolicited email report them to

who bounce back emails to spammers and block their IP adresses.

Kevin Cheng wrote:

Perhaps content providers could offer opt-in strategies where users can select from either providing commodified personal information or providing payment.

I believe, NYTimes etc are giving the option for you to pay - though I don’t think that exampts you from giving information.

Actually speaking of, I do like their alternative to subscription: watch an advertisement. I’m willing to put up with an advertisement to get to an article I want to read instead of subscribing because I don’t read enough of their articles to warrant subscription but I understand the need for them to get revenue to maintain their quality. Worst case, I get a drink while the advertisement plays.

I agree that companies, not just websites, are increasingly disrespectful of their customers’ privacy. This trend has been happening for quite some time. I can’t find anything right now on US leglisation but I seem to recall regulation requiring sites to disclose their privacy policy in a prominent place and to notify you when said policy changes.

Bob Salmon wrote:

My Dad bought himself a camcorder from Dixons (UK mass market retailer). He had a credit arrangement, so had to give his date of birth as part of the insurance related to the credit. A year or so later he got a letter out of the blue from Dixons saying “Dear Mr. Salmon, as it’s nearly your birthday why not treat yourself to…”.

This was a clear violation of the Data Protection Act - information obtained for one purpose cannot be used for another purpose. Unfortunately for Dixons, my Mum worked for the Data Protection Registrar’s Office (as it was called then) and came down on Dixons like a ton of bricks. Huzzah!

If you get grief like this in the UK, contact the Office of the Information Commissioner (as it’s called now). On their advice I’ve threatened an office supplies company who kept sending me catalogues - section 11 of the Data Protection Act was the stick I wielded if I remember correctly.

James Watt wrote:

I had a APC power conditioner. The battery went out. I went to to order a new one. They required, as a condition of being permitted to buy a battery for $35 plus s/h/tax, that I agree to a 16 page legal contract full of clauses about how they can give my private info to others, and absolving them of all responsibility in case anything ever happens. I wrote to them complaining about this. They did not write back.

Result: I dumped the APC machine and bought a Belkin. Then I recommended we do the same at work where we were buying a lot of power conditioners — over 500.

I will never ever ever do business with APC again and I will continue to tell others to stay away from them as well.

This is what companies that are gung-ho about violating privacy will get: fewer sales as their company slowly sinks into oblivion.

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OK/Cancel is a comic strip collaboration co-written and co-illustrated by Kevin Cheng and Tom Chi. Our subject matter focuses on interfaces, good and bad and the people behind the industry of building interfaces - usability specialists, interaction designers, human-computer interaction (HCI) experts, industrial designers, etc. (Who Links Here) ?