The Multi-Billion Dollar Industry That Makes Its Living From Your Data
In the ocean ecosystem, plankton is the raw material that fuels an entire food chain. These tiny organisms on their own aren’t that remarkable, but en masse, they have a huge impact on the world.
Here on dry land, the massive volume of content and meta data we produce fuels a marketing research industry that is worth nearly $50 billion. Every instant message, page click, and step you take now produces a data point that can be used to build a detailed profile of who you are.
Every breath you take, Every move you make
The coarse-grained demographics and contact information of yesteryear seems quaint compared to today’s sophisticated data collection battleground. In the past, marketers would make judgement calls on your likely income and family structure based on where you lived, and you’d receive “targeted” mail and calls from telemarketers. Loyalty programs and the emergence of web analytics pushed things a little further.
Today, the steady march of technological advancement has created a vast data collection empire that measures every aspect of your digital life and, increasingly, your offline life as well. Facebook alone uses nearly one hundred data points to target ads to you – everything from your marital status to whether you’ve been on vacation lately or not. Telecoms have access to extremely detailed information on your location. Apple has biometric data.
Also watching your every move are web trackers. “Cookie-syncing” is one of the sneaky ways advertisers can follow you around the internet. Basically, cookie-syncing allows third parties to share browsing information at such a large scale that even the NSA “piggybacks” off them for surveillance purposes.
The recent sales growth of smart speakers will only increase the breadth of data companies collect and analyze. Amazon and Google have both filed patents for technology that would essentially allow them to mine audio recordings for keywords. Advertisers could potentially target you with diapers before your family and friends even know you’re expecting a baby.
Following the ones and zeros
While web trackers and companies like Apple and Google are collecting a lot of personal and behavioral data, it’s the whales of the data ecosystem – data brokers – who are creating increasingly detailed profiles on almost everyone.
Data brokers trade on the privacy of consumers and operate in the shadows.
– Senator Al Franken (D-Minn)
The goal of data brokers, such as Experian or Acxiom, is to siphon up as much personal data as possible and apply it to profiles. This data comes from a wide variety of sources. Your purchases, financial history, internet activity, and even psychographic attributes are mixed with information from public records to create a robust dossier. Digital profiles are then sorted into one of thousands of categories to help optimize advertising efforts.
Fear the shadow profile?
According to Pew Research, 91% of Americans “agree” or “strongly agree” that people have lost control over how personal information is collected and used.
Though optimizing clickthroughs is a big business, companies are increasingly moving beyond advertising to extract value from their growing data pipeline. Amalgamated data is increasingly being viewed as a clever way to assess risk in the decision-making process (e.g. hiring, insurance, loan or housing applications), and the stakes for consumers are going up in the process.
For example, a man may feel comfortable sharing their HIV status on Grindr (for practical reasons), but may not want that information going to a third party. (Unfortunately, that really happened.)
In 2015, Facebook filed a patent for a service that would help insurance companies vet people based on the credit ratings of their social network.
The More You Know
Below the surface of our screens, our digital profiles continue to take shape.
Measures like adjusting website privacy controls and clearing cookies are a good start, but that’s only a fraction of the data companies are collecting. Not only do data brokers make it hard to officially opt out, their partnerships with corporations and advanced data collection methods cast such a wide net, that it’s almost impossible to exclude individual people.
Data brokers have operated with very little scrutiny or oversight, but that may be changing. Under intense public and governmental pressure, Facebook recently cut ties with data brokers. For a company that has bullishly pursued monetization of user data at every turn, the move is a sign that the public sentiment is changing.
The more information on the personal data industry, visit Cracked Labs’ report on the issue.
Explainer: How Synthetic Biology is Redesigning Life
Synthetic biology (SynBio) is a field of science that involves engineering life for human benefit. Here’s an in-depth look at how it works.
Explainer: How Synthetic Biology is Redesigning Life
Synthetic biology (SynBio) is a field of science that involves engineering life for human benefit. It has the potential to reshape many facets of society—from the ways we produce food, to how we detect and cure diseases.
It’s a fast-growing field of science. In fact, by 2026, the SynBio market’s global revenue is expected to reach $34.5 billion, at a CAGR of 21.9%.
While this fascinating area of research is worth paying attention to, it might be daunting to wrap your head around—especially if you don’t come from a scientific background. With this in mind, here’s an introduction to synthetic biology, and how it works.
What is Synthetic Biology?
As we touched on in the introduction, SynBio is an area of scientific research that involves editing and redesigning the biological components, systems, and interactions that make up life. By doing this, SynBio can grant organisms new abilities that are beneficial to humans.
It’s similar to genetic engineering, however, it’s slightly more granular. While genetic engineering transfers ready-made genetic material between organisms, SynBio builds new genetic material from scratch.
SynBio has applications across a myriad of fields, with research covering everything from space exploration to drug discovery. Here’s a look at five of its real-world applications:
1. Medical Technologies
SynBio has a wide range of medical applications, including drug discovery, antibody production, and vaccine innovation (it’s been key in the fight against COVID-19). It also plays a significant role in “living drug” development, which is the use of living microbes to treat chronic or severe illnesses.
2. Sustainable Energies
Biofuel, which is renewable energy that’s derived from living matter, could replace petroleum and diesel in the near future—and synthetic biology technology is helping develop fermentation processes that will produce biofuel more efficiently.
Bioremediation uses living organisms to restore polluted sites to their original condition. This field uses SynBio to try and make the decontamination process more efficient, and to expand the list of contaminants that bioremediation can target.
4. Food and Agriculture
SynBio plays a significant role in cellular agriculture, which is the production of agricultural products directly from cells rather than livestock or plants. These modified foods might have higher nutritional value, or might be void of allergens. For instance, this can be used to make plant-based burgers taste more like meat.
5. Space Systems and Exploration
Synthetic biology and 3-D printing have huge potential to sustain life during space exploration. Using SynBio technology, cells and bacteria could be modified to produce a myriad of materials—from plastic to medicine, and even food—and astronauts could print these synthetically engineered materials on-demand while in space.
Zooming in: the Science Behind Synthetic Biology
Now that we’ve touched on SynBio’s use in a wide range of industries, let’s dive into the science behind it. In order to understand the mechanics of SynBio, it’s important to explore the relationship between DNA and protein production.
Proteins are the drivers of life in a cell—they’re responsible for carrying out all of life’s functions. They are created through a process called protein synthesis, which relies heavily on DNA. Why is DNA so important in protein production? Because it houses all the information a cell needs for protein synthesis.
Once a protein is formed, it embarks on a complex journey throughout the cell, interacting with a number of other proteins and cellular components to perform functions needed for the cell’s survival.
This process of protein production and cellular interaction is an example of a biological system. And it’s this biological system that synthetic biologists investigate, and try to manipulate.
The Five Main Areas of Research
After combing through the literature, we identified five major areas of SynBio research:
- In silico Synthetic Biology
Meaning “via computer”, this area of SynBio research uses computational simulations to design and predict new biological systems. It’s like using a drawing board before starting a project.
- “Unnatural” Molecular Biology
An area of research focused on altering the smallest unit of DNA—nucleotides.
This area of research deals with larger segments of DNA like genes or chromosomes, and sometimes other cell components that interact with DNA. It aims to create new proteins or protein systems and is the most popular area of SynBio research.
- Synthetic Genomics
Focused on altering and manipulating whole genomes (which is the complete set of a cell’s DNA).
- Protocell Synthetic Biology
This field of research aims to construct whole cells. This is a step towards creating organisms that are entirely synthetic
While early research in SynBio struggled to finish real-world projects, innovation in this field has ramped up quickly in the last decade.
Synthetic biology products are becoming increasingly more pervasive in everyday life—so much so that by 2030, some scientists believe most people will have eaten, worn, or used something created through synthetic biology.
The World’s Top 50 Influencers Across Social Media Platforms
Which influencers have the most total social media followers? We tally up follower counts across all major platforms, from Twitter to TikTok.
Visualizing the World’s Top 50 Influencers
In the modern digital world, social media reach is power.
The people with the most followers on Twitter, for example, have a massive platform to spread their messages, while those with large, engaged followings on Instagram are an advertiser’s dream sponsor partner.
Social media can also be an equalizer of power. It’s true that many celebrities boast large followings across platforms, but social media has also enabled previously unknown personalities to turn YouTube or TikTok fame into veritable star power and influence.
Who has the biggest reach across the entire social media universe? Instead of looking at who has the most followers on Instagram, Twitter, or other networks, we ranked the most-followed personalities across all major platforms combined.
Who Has the Most Overall Followers on Social Media?
We parsed through hundreds of the most-followed accounts on multiple platforms to narrow down the top influencers across social media as of April 2021.
Sources include trackers of the most followers on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, Twitch, and TikTok, verified directly on site and with social media tracker Socialblade.
The results? A top 50 list of social media influencers consisting of athletes, musicians, politicians, and other personalities.
|Rank||Name||Category||Total Followers||Biggest Platform|
|#6||Dwayne Johnson||Film & TV||342M|
|#16||Ellen DeGeneres||Film & TV||260M|
|#20||Will Smith||Film & TV||217M|
|#24||Kevin Hart||Film & TV||201M|
|#31||Vin Diesel||Film & TV||177M|
|#40||Priyanka Chopra||Film & TV||144M|
|#43||Felix "PewDiePie" Kjellberg||Gaming||141M||Youtube|
|#44||Akshay Kumar||Film & TV||140M|
|#46||Deepika Padukone||Film & TV||138M|
|#49||Whindersson Nunes Batista||Other||135M|
|#50||Salman Khan||Film & TV||134M|
Unsurprisingly, celebrities reign supreme on social media. As of April 2021, soccer superstar Cristiano Ronaldo was the most-followed person on social media with more than 500 million total followers.
But there are other illuminating highlights, such as the global reach of music. With large and diverse fanbases, artists account for half of the top 50 largest social media followings.
Also notable is the power of Instagram, which was the biggest platform for 67% of the top 50 social media influencers. This includes hard-to-categorize celebrities like the Kardashians and Jenners, which turned reality TV and social media fame into business and media empires.
Download the Generational Power Report (.pdf)
The Most Followers on Twitter, TikTok, and YouTube
However, it’s not only celebrities that dominate social media.
Personalities that started on one social media platform and developed massive followings include TikTok’s most-followed star Charli D’Amelio and YouTubers Germán Garmendia, Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg, and Whindersson Nunes Batista.
Politicians were also prominent influencers. Former U.S. President Barack Obama has the most followers on Twitter, and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has more than 175 million followers across social media.
Former U.S. President Donald Trump would have also made the list with more than 140 million followers across social media before being banned from multiple platforms on January 8, 2021.
A Generational Look at Social Media Influence
While older generations have had to adapt to social media platforms, younger generations have grown up alongside them. As a measure of cultural importance, this gives Gen X, Millennials, and Gen Z a rare leg-up on older generations.
Millennials, in particular, hold the lion’s share of spots in this top 50 list:
|Generation||# of Influencers in Generation||Top Influencer in Generation|
|Gen Z||4||Kylie Jenner|
|Gen X||10||Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson|
|Baby Boomer||3||Ellen DeGeneres|
The average age of the top 50 influencers was just over 37.
In our Generational Power Index (GPI), which measures the share of power generations hold in various categories, digital platforms were a key area where Millennials derived their power and influence. Overall, Baby Boomers—and to a lesser extent, Gen X—still run the show in most areas of society today.
Social Media Influence, Going Forward
As most fans and advertisers know, not all social media accounts and followings are homogenous.
Many influencers with relatively small followings have more consistent engagement, and are often able to demand high advertising fees as a result.
Conversely, most social media platforms are reckoning with a severe glut of fake accounts or bots that inflate follower counts, impacting everything from celebrities and politicians to personalities and businesses.
Regardless, social media has become a mainstay platform (or soapbox) for today’s cultural influencers. Billions of people turn to social media for news, engagement, recommendations, and entertainment, and new platforms are always on the rise.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of the data used for this story incorrectly counted Facebook likes instead of followers for some personalities. The content has since been corrected and updated.”
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