POST 5: Association and approach: reframing personal web-browsing data and the response

I am very interested in the aesthetic and social associations people have with their own personal data, and how this might inform practices that surround it. The following research is an exploration into this relationship between perception and approach.

My research began with an interview process, in which I spoke with a female Chinese student (who will remain anonymous in the name of privacy) about her perceptions regarding her personal data. Some of the key insights from the interview follow:

If you think of a single data, one data, sitting there, on the table, what does it look like?
Umm … A robot (laughs), I don’t know, I think of a robot for some reason. 

A robot, where do you think that comes from?
(Pauses) Umm … I am not sure? I guess it comes from films like the Matrix or something.

Do you ever make any attempts to conceal your personal data when web-browsing or using smart phone applications for example?
No. To be honest, I am not really that concerned with my data privacy. I feel as though I really have nothing to hide. I feel as though I am kind of separate from my persona online if that makes sense. I am not too worried about what others gather about me online, as I know that I am seperate from the person that exists online. 

That is pretty interesting, the idea of you being seperate from your online self — have you ever become aware of targeted marketing online? And does this targeting marketing ever speak to you then — given that you are seperate from the online self that you mentioned?
Yes, I have become aware of things that pop up on my feed all the time. Most of the advertisements don’t speak to me to be honest, although, I am sure that there have been a few that have in the past. I don’t really see this as a problem though, maybe it makes things easier for shopping and things like that. I don’t change my browsing habits or anything like that as a result.

Would you be comfortable showing me your web-browsing history right now? If not, why so?
Yes, I think I would be pretty comfortable … (pauses), maybe I would delete a few things first (laughs). Like I said, I don’t have too much to hide.

The interviewee seemed to show very little concern regarding her personal data and how this may be made accessible to others online. There seemed to be a dichotomy between what she deemed to be her ‘online self’ and her ‘physical self’ — the latter being of more importance to her in terms of privacy. I found this dichotomy interesting. She also seemed comfortable in trading her personal data (or perhaps privacy) for seamlessness and favourable online experiences.

I began to wonder at this point, if by re-framing the interviewee’s personal data, such as her web-browsing history, I may be able to alter the interviewee’s thinking surrounding such data. 

My probe looked at exploring just this: I asked my interviewee if she would provide me with a weeks worth of web-browsing history, which I would then look to re-frame or re-contextualise in some way. This re-framed web-browsing history (of which I was still unsure of the format) would be then presented back to her, so that I could re- gage her response. 

The interviewee provided 15 screen shots of her web-browsing data, covering the dates from 21 August – 28 August, 2016. I have included a few of these screen shots below for your viewing:

Web-browsing data list provided by the interviewee
Web-browsing data list provided by the interviewee

As you can see, the screen shots provided consisted only of text, containing links and titles of websites visited by the interviewee only. Rebecca Kenny, Justin Pierce and Graeme Pye, from the Australian Institute of Computer Ethics, Melbourne, describe two main methods of extracting web-browsing data in the ‘real world’, to provide lists that somewhat resemble those provided by the interviewee: The first, is the ‘Log file method’, involving locally stored Cookies, which sends browsing data back to the server, and the second, the ‘Javascript method’, involving code embedded in websites which extracts information and sends it back to a third party web analytics service provider (Kenny, Pearce & Pye 2012). Kenny, Pierce and Pye go on to suggest that these methods provide much more than just lists of text and links, such as those provided by my interviewee, but rather, often reveal a much more comprehensive user images; allowing  “user click-paths, drop off points, ecommerce reportings, such as product views and purchases and also real time monitoring of website visits” (Kenny, Pearce & Pye 2012, p. 6). These comprehensive user images are generated and collated by web analytics specialists and used for things such online marketing, targeted advertising and performance reviews, to name a few (Kenny, Pearce & Pye 2012). 

I decided to create a visual collage of the interviewee’s web-browsing data, to somewhat mimic the comprehensive user images gathered by web analytics specialists in the ‘real world’, as discussed by Kenny Pierce and Pye. To do so, I Googled each of the sources found within the interviewee’s web-browsing data individually, gathering imagery from Youtube videos, websites and social media platforms etc. It was important in terms of my process that I visualised only the data provided within the screenshots — to create some sort of control and to allow some insight into the scope and potential of the data provided, in generating a comprehensive user image. These visual collages follow:

Visual collages
Visual collage of the interviewee’s web-browsing data
Visual collages2
Visual collage of the interviewee’s web-browsing data

In reviewing these collages, I thought it might be interesting to also piece together a persona. Of course, I, myself, was not neutral in creating this persona — as I had met and interviewed the interviewee prior to the creation of the persona. It was interesting, however, to consider some of the aspects of the interviewee’s life that that I hadn’t known before reframing her web-browsing data. I have listed a few of these gained insights below:

  • She listens to quite a lot of dream pop/shoegaze and airy electronic music
  • She is very interested in photo collage and its various applications
  • She eats quite a lot of takeaway food
  • She has shown interest in entrepreneurial funding programs, suggesting she may be looking to patent a design idea
  • She lives in the inner city of Sydney, specifically in the Alexandria/Redfern area
  • She is interested in community based arts and craft programs

Upon reviewing the findings, the interviewee revealed that they were very accurate, which created mixed emotions: She was quite embarrassed by my findings of her fast-food habits and her Facebook search history, for example, but was quite impressed by the label that I had given her for her music genre preference. We entered an open discussion regarding these findings, in which the interviewee revealed that she doubted that the findings would alter the way in which she approached her personal data or web-browsing habits in the future.

The interviewee did, however, reveal that she would be uncomfortable posting this collage online, or attaching her name to this blog post, for example. This was interesting, considering that she did state that the collage and persona findings were very accurate. We discussed how the visual collages somewhat mimicked Facebook feeds, or Instagram walls for example, and how it was therefore interesting that she felt uncomfortable sharing these visual collages. We agreed that the web-browsing collages perhaps did not offer a means for the interviewee to curate or tailor content in the way in which social media platforms often do. The agency is perhaps displaced from the individual — and handed to the data itself, in generating a public image or public persona. We discussed that perhaps the visual collages are in fact more accurate, or more representative of the interviewee than a social media tile, for example. Perhaps the visual collages were in fact revealing more of the interviewee’s ‘physical self’ than her ‘online self’ — a dichotomy identified by the interviewee within the interview process. Perhaps social media offers a means of curating the interviewee’s ‘online self’ — the ‘online self’ being a means of diverging or deflecting exposure of her ‘physical self’.

Given that the interviewee seemed very aloof regarding her web-browsing data in the early stages of my process, and more strict, and wary, regarding her data towards the end, perhaps suggests that the visualisations of her web-browsing data did, indeed, prove to be more invasive than the textual former. This is interesting, if one is to consider the ease in which marketing companies and web analytics specialists can, and do, generate similar user profiles, daily. Perhaps if users, such as the interviewee, were more aware of the potential of web-browsing data in generating a comprehensive user image (such as the visual collages), users may start to approach their personal data practices differently. The reframing of the interviewee’s web-browsing data proved an effective means for exploring this idea. Perhaps by reframing data in such a way, designers are able to raise awareness, which in turn changes the way in which people think about, and approach personal data. This perhaps has a currency in making change.

Key Findings:

  • Reframing personal data can shift people’s thinking and approach to such data.
  • Raw web-browsing data is quite representative of the individual
  • Web-browsing data can create quite intimate spaces
  • Visualisations of personal data are more immediate, and so, perhaps more invasive
  • Reframing data has a currency in making change


Kenny, R. Pierce, J. & Pye, G. 2012, ‘Ethical considerations and guidelines in web analytics and digital marketing: a retail case study’, in AiCE 2012 : Proceedings of the 6th Australian Institute of Computer Ethics conference 2012, pp. 5-12.