Data rights in the 21st century : exploring the boundaries of empowerment in blockchain social media settings

Park, Soyoung, Ph. D.
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Personal data based on daily human activities in digital domains are becoming an asset accelerating the unprecedented growth of digital industries. Individual data subjects, tired of businesses using and selling user data for financial gain, are now more aware of the value of their data and are increasingly demanding a fair share of the value they create/contribute. Despite recent policy efforts in support of the public claim such as data dividends, data tax, and data fiduciaries, there are no easy or “perfect” solutions; multiple solutions have catalyzed multiple debates. The goal of this study is to broaden our horizons on this issue by investigating the potential of an incentivized blockchain-powered social networks platform to exercise our data rights. Drawing on Steemit, one of the first blockchain social networks as a site for research, this study explores how ordinary users’ ownership of data as well as data privacy are implemented and practiced in the form of user-generated contents (UGCs), how was their “investment” of personal information actually rewarded, and the sociotechnical conditions of successful users on this type of the alternative platform to realize the value of our data. Using a topic modeling approach, content analysis, and an online user survey, the study takes both macro and micro perspectives to examine UGC behaviors that employ personal information as a source of content, in addition to exploring individual users. The Steemit site essentially rewards people for sharing personal information, providing a unique platform with which to assess how people create value from UGC. For example, users’ self-introduction posts created an extensive topic space that generally contains basic demographic information. However, a considerable proportion of topic space focuses on expressing who participants are by disclosing their personal traits, views of life, life goal or vision rather than conventional demographic profiles. This implies an increase of “less profile-able or less quantifiable” personal information. Comparing the topics over time periods when cryptocurrency values increased and then diminished illustrates the way that context may affect content creation, since self-disclosure dropped off when the value assigned to cryptocurrency dropped.
From a micro view of UGCs, a qualitative analysis of the user posts reveals how the posts weaving personal details earned more incentives than those without. It also shows that users have implemented privacy-aware identity strategies, characterized by the wide separation of personal and professional identities in online space as well as information balancing activities. Using selfie postings restricts self-disclosure in forms other than selfie itself. Regarding the socio-technical context, the relationship between digital competency and using Steemit was analyzed using a square structural equation modeling based on user survey data. Results demonstrate the critical role of creative digital competency that is positively and significantly affected by web 1.0 operational skills and web 2.0 social skills as well as a sense of tech-dependence. Importantly, unemployed and people from less developed countries were likely to be marginalized on this platform, suggesting another form of digital inequality operating in this environment. These findings highlight the potential of the decentralized rewarding platform that sheds light on the multifaceted role of users who embody the traits of natural private persons, content creators, and gig workers. When given the opportunities to invest not only skills, knowledge, and strengths, but also identity and experiences to yield rewards, participants were willing to share personal information but also exhibited privacy-aware behaviors. The study contributes to research on users’ online privacy practices by looking at how people embed information about themselves in their self-creations beyond the profile page. It contributes to the field of digital literacy by demonstrating the structure of technological embeddedness intertwined with information privacy concerns for online creativity as a source of value. This study discusses the possibilities of this alternative technology-based solution to empower ordinary users to realize their own data rights in the contemporary data regime.