Plow.io And The Ethics Of Content Curation

It takes next to no skill to copy/paste a link on a social media site. Outrage media lives on this practice. However, there is a very subtle way to tell an ever-evolving story by sharing links with appropriately worded questions as part of an overall content strategy. Link sharing alone is not a way to make any kind of living, and yet there is Plow.io.

I wrote about Plow last week. Their platform is rather simple and takes the requisite skill to copy, paste, and tag good links into a browser. Their concept behind creating curation experts led me to ponder a deeper meaning behind it all. They plan to collect behavoral data about what is shared, who shares it, what the anchors (tags) are, and who likes and views the shared content. That collected data is then sold to marketing firms in the form of advanced behavorial data.

So my attempts at deep thought led to this question: What are the ethical considerations, if any, for everyone involved in this experiment in creating a database of human buying behavior from scratch?

The Curator (Me)

When first considering my part in this private beta, I felt I had little to worry about. My job is simply to find links then copy and paste. I add a few relevant anchors, and provide feedback to the founders as to useability, UI/UX and communicate any functionality problems.

Further pondering led me to see this work through the eyes of those who would use the platform to feed the outrage media machine that the majority of social media consumers devour daily.

The Plow platform allows for others to follow me and upvote the links I share. It's a great check and balance against posting clickbait and attempts at black hat SEO. It's my responsibility not only as a tester but as a contributor to read and verify all my shares before I post. The founders can easily kick me off the platform if I was using it to disseminate garbage. 

ETHICAL STANDARD 1: Curators are directly responsible for the quality and content of shared links. 

Plow: Its Founders And Employees

The majority of the time when people claim to be outraged at a company it comes from lack of communication. If Plow is clear about its intentions to gather and sell advanced behavorial data for marketing purposes, there shouldn't be an uprising because everyone participating knows the endgame.

Additionally, curators aren't necessarily risking anything different on Plow than on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. Very few of those who copy/paste their nonsense take responsibility for anything. Again, it's outrage media seeking eyeballs.

Plow offers curators the chance to be known as subject matter experts bases upon the number of upvotes. Does that really mean anything? No. It's merely a holographic carrot in the faux economy of clicks-and-likes. If the value of being acknowledged as an expert of a certain stature made working with Plow something I could monetize, then there would be more to consider.

For Plow, the ethical consideration comes from its subject headings or, in this case, anchors. The founders are adding new anchors often. Since I started a few weeks ago, there have been new anchors every few days.

Where Plow must be clear and tread carefully is the depth and breadth of the anchors. For example, digging through the website I found a anchor for Left-Wing Politics. There isn't a corresponding Right-Wing Politics. They recently added a Poltics anchor. There are many others. The founders are obviously from the West Coast. There are several anchors for the San Fancisco Giants and other California standards. There are also other city anchors like New York, but there is no Yankees or Mets anchor.

The ethical consideration has NOTHING to do with having a particular stance or opinon about anything. The only thing I want to know when I contribute is what is the slant on my work. There is slant in everything. Fox News, MSNBC, the NRA, the NAACP, or pick another group because all have particular leanings. I can choose to participate or not, and I can only make that decison if I have all relevant data.

Facebook can throw rhetoric around all they want. It's a liberal/progressive soap box, and the faster you accept that the faster you can make better choices about sharing content.

ETHICAL STANDARD 2: Plow must be clear with contributors and partners about stances on issues relevant to the type of audience being cultivated so everyone can make informed judgements as to their level of involvement. 

Partners And Clients

The collection and analysis of big data is about forming connections and correlations to better understand buying behavior. Buying the data provides a market segment snapshot for the client. Because money is exchanged, there's a contract and provisions for how the data was gathered including methods of measurement and all contextual demographics.  

The ethics in play here are those agreed upon between partners as in any business transaction. We will likely never know the details involved, and that's fine with me. Many of the fancy buzzwords we use are nicely worded euphemisms for better ways to get consumer's to spend money. The marketplace may like to think they are discriminating and refined. In reality, people just want the next shiny object to distract themselves from their miserable lives long enough to impress someone else.

That's consumerism at its core. I find no fault with Plow nor its partners for using this condition to make money. Capitalism rests on this principle for its very existance. 

Curators have no real horse in this race. I can't complain to the founders of Plow or their partners about how my shared links are used. It's not my content. I'm just a guy on a street corner waving a big, bright sign advertising a local furniture sale. That's it.

ETHICAL STANDARD 3: Plow must adhere to valid contracts and provde services as agreed upon. Curators have no standing in the agreement as there is is little real benefit to assisting data collection.

Final Thoughts

In a broader perspective, this is exactly what goes on daily at marketing firms. Clients contract with outside groups to find out how to better serve their target market. Lots of money is exchanged in the process, and often the data is useless in short order.

I continue to ponder as to why exactly is Plow doing this The data already exists. Why not just take what's already there and run your fancy algorithms on it? The answer is found in the algorithms applied in the analysis.

Patenting algorithms is a very lucrative business. Plow is using this social data to test the veracity of a predictive formula. Plow then sells their services for lots of money based upon the results they create. 

This piece has really been about adding a bit of humanity into a brutal world. Startups must be ruthlessly effcient about making money. That's the best way we have right now to make the world better. As a result, higher thinking and meta concepts get lost in the push for profit. That doesn't make anyone a bad person. It merely means we can't forget how connected we are to everyone and everything around us.