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Social media physicalization: Wdym_data

Carmen Enríquez

Internet companies track all our digital moves, collecting data to form digital profiles to feed their products. Consequently, we as users experience ultra-personalization, underexposure to informational variety, and serve as a product for the data market. Instagram  and Facebook - part of Meta - are popular social networking sites with their users being hyper-targeted using hidden algorithms. But even for these widely used platforms, users hardly ever check privacy policies due to their density and complexity, and thus are unaware of what this data is like and what is done with it.

In a context where data ownership is lost, how does the user play a role further than the source data is gathered from? Can data physicalization help us understand “hidden” social media algorithms?

wdym_data is a computational design tool that visualizes and physicalizes data from a person’s online profile. The design divides online activity data into the user input, the data market, and the algorithmic computed data. This division provides a clear visualization of the main sources of data that are gathered and stored. Through this process of computational design and digital fabrication, the wdym_data prototype varies in shape related to the data.

By being able to distinguish between and compare the data, users are given an understanding of their online behaviour. For example, “posters”, share more than they consume and therefore have a big user input axis and smaller for the rest. In comparison, “Scrollers” have a dense axis when it comes to algorithmic data as their main activity online is not sharing but viewing.

In this way, users have an active role in interpreting and making sense of their own data.

“I was shocked to see folders such as, “advertisers who have collected information directly from you” or “possible phone numbers.”
Test participant

wdym_data enables individual user to identify their data by applying data physicalization in the context of social media learning algorithms. The wdym_data prototype varies in shape depending on the users’ data input. By facilitating the uncertain factor of algorithms “wdym_data” presents  users with the information collected about them, and sparks reflection through a unique, individualized output.

Printing an object shaped by data visualizes the user information in terms of online behaviour, giving insights into online customs.

“It´s disappointing to see; it’s a wake-up call”
Test participant