The Quantified Consumer

There’s a refrain we hear often when consumers talk about dealing with bureaucracies, or with businesses with less-than-stellar service cultures: “I’m just a number to them.” It generally refers not so much to an actual number, but to a feeling of anonymity. In the age of Big Data, “I’m a number” can take on a very different meaning–communicating not anonymity, but the fact that an entity knows one down to granular detail. And it’s very much about the number itself.

We live in a world that is increasingly datafied. Third parties collect all the bytes of info we leave behind in our massive data exhaust clouds as we traverse the online landscape. These entities quantify us with our own data. Things not previously quantified are translated into scores as companies try to make sense of the data.

Sometimes the scores that are generated from the collection of our data are shared with us by companies or institutions. Our dataist paradigm leads us to trust in numbers as objective and true measurements. So when companies or entities quantify us in some manner, we tend to accept it.

In recent research analyzing consumers of credit score products, my co-author and I find that consumers who are quantified may take on the resultant score as part of their identity, translating the score to a narrative arc of self. What’s really interesting is that these consumers show similar ideological characteristics to those in the quantified-self movement. To a greater or lesser extent, they are the number. The number is them.

This opens up all sorts of questions about consumer identity in the age of company datafication and consumer quantification.

What’s in a number? We are, apparently.

DuFault, Beth Leavenworth and John W. Schouten (In press) “Self Quantification and the Datapreneurial Consumer Identity.” in Consumption Markets & Culture