You’re worth a million dollars

A couple of friends came visiting from the old Blighty (England), a few weekends ago. They were on a larger tour of the US but had kept a couple of days for New York and were staying at mine. They’d ordered that I keep the weekend free to sight-see with them, so I ordered the sunshine to be glorious. Safe to say, both the sunshine and I delivered.

We’d just finished taking pictures of the bull on Wall Street and en route to Central Park we had a pit stop at Madison Square Garden. (Clearly they’d come to soak in the atmosphere.)

I was waiting for them to have a look around the building and as one does when there’s nothing to do for two seconds, I checked my Gmail, and my Twitter and Facebook feeds. And that’s when I saw it. Both my friends had ‘checked in’ to Madison Square Garden (MSG)! All we’d done was crossed it fleetingly, had a hot dog from the stand outside and were on our way. Not even taken a picture.

I pointed out how they’d totally faked it. We had a few jokes about faking stuff and continued on to Central Park. It was only later on after they’d left, while I was chuckling about certain moments over the weekend, I thought about it. It was really a lie. A lie to the rest of the world that they’d actually been inside MSG. That they’d probably seen a game that the New York Knicks had won, probably an incredible game that went down to the last two seconds, an off-balance three-pointer.

The point is Facebook thought it was real. But it wasn’t. I started to wonder about all the data Facebook had about people and how much of it was of real value. Or true. Not much on both counts. How many instances must there be such as my friends’ untruth? But that’s just the nature of social media. The like button on Facebook is what everything’s about. What people would want them to see rather than what they actually saw.

Forbes recently said that consumer data on Facebook is worth $141 billion. But how do they prove any of it? Joe Random could be in transit from Charlestown to Dallas with a stopover at Vegas and check in so that his friends know that he’s there. And years later if suppose his relationship status turns to ‘single’, an advertisement banner will appear on the side bar that says ‘Fancy a trip back to Vegas? You know you loved it the first time’. No. Joe didn't. He ate an airport sandwich and sat next to a crying baby.

Which got me to wonder what sort of company would have the most accurate, truthful, unbiased data about you and me that told them everything about us? No, it’s not Google, nor Facebook, not even Amazon. You don’t buy all your purchases from Amazon (the milk is fresher in your local Whole Foods). Not even Whole Foods has all your data; you don’t get that cute bedside lamp you’ve always wanted from there.

Yes, I think you got it. It’s Amex. And Mastercard. And Visa. Together worth more than $200bn. With our data. The most comprehensive data network ever accumulated.

Think about it: They know and remember even more than we do. They not only know I signed up for that expensive gym with a trainer, but that, two weeks ago, after my workout, I ordered in a steak burger. With fries.

They know where I’ve used my air miles and bonus points. They know that in the summer of ‘09 I spent a ridiculous amount of money on a trip to Argentina. They know I have Netflix, Spotify, and New York Times accounts. And that I’m part of the Dollar Shave Club. (Don’t judge, you should check it out. Even if you don’t shave.) They know about all the romantic meals I've had paying for two and then back to getting take-outs for one and then back again to meals for two. Not only that, they know all the addresses I've lived at and my current one. (It’s the first thing I change when moving house.)

That data doesn't lie. What also doesn't lie are the other things like the type of card you have, whether it’s a corporate or a personal one and which shops you usually visit, whether offline or online. And with their recent partnerships with Twitter, Facebook, and Foursquare, companies like Amex know more about you than your best friend and your mother put together. Well, not really, but you get the point. And that’s incredible. Dangerous but incredible.

As for my friends, they had a great weekend. And Amex knows that too, because of the bicycle helmet I bought from the Amex gift card my friends gave me as a thank you.

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