I Am Not for Sale (But I Used to Be)

Several years ago I visited Charleston SC on a vacation. While there I toured the Aiken-Rhett House, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977 and is now a museum. I love museums and I love old houses, but the Aiken-Rhett House is unique among all the old house museums I’ve ever been to: it retains an outbuilding that once contained slave quarters (discreetly described as “servants’ quarters” in the NRHP nomination form).

I arrived at the house shortly after it opened to visitors for the day, so had it pretty much to myself. I followed the audio tour through the main house, then walked out the back door. Two nearly identical buildings flanked the courtyard—to the left, the stables; to the right, the slaves’ quarters. I went up the stairs to the second floor, above the kitchen. The small rooms, which reminded me of a bargain motel, were where the slaves had once lived. They were mostly bare—I remember a wooden bed frame without a mattress and a simple wooden table—because slaves’ furnishings were not saved as heirlooms and very few have survived the years.

Alone in the building, I tried to imagine what it would have been like to be a person without rights—one who could be sold as easily as the horses in the stables across the courtyard to another plantation, in another state, perhaps separated from my family forever. What was it like to have no choice in one’s life and work, and no legal recourse? To be not a person but someone else’s property? I could not quite wrap my brain around it, but I had the sense that I was standing in a very special place, almost sacred. It is one of the last surviving slaves’ quarters—structures that, thankfully, will never again be built in the United States. A century and a half ago this nation fought a war to decide (among other things) that slavery was to be abolished and all people, regardless of the color of their skin or where their ancestors came from, would have the most basic rights as human beings.

Seventeen Dollars a Share

So imagine my surprise, a few days ago, when I discovered that I (or, to be more precise, my Twitter identity) was on sale for $17 a share on a website I had not previously known about. I was not pleased. Actually, I was outraged. The first analogy I thought of was not slavery but prostitution. Somebody was selling me online, without my consent or (until recently) even my knowledge. There was a dollar amount attached to my name! I was relieved to see that no-one had purchased any shares, but how could I guarantee that it wouldn’t happen?

Fortunately Empire Avenue (the site in question) responded promptly to my e-mail asking them to remove me from their website. For that I am thankful, but in the meantime I have engaged in a few discussions about why I reacted so strongly. (A brief search of Twitter tells me that women react more negatively to this site than men, but not exclusively.) After all, there are other sites like Klout, PeerIndex and Twitalyzer that “score” Twitter and social media users based on their online activity. How are they different?

Simple. Those other sites give users a score, like a report card grade or a batting average; they don’t put a dollar value on social media users. This is, I want to emphasize, my personal Twitter account and my handle is a variation of my name. To the people who engage with me on Twitter, it is me. It’s not a corporate account, so I cannot think of Empire Avenue as a stock exchange. I never issued an IPO on my personal identity.

But there’s a little more to it. Those other sites use algorithms to determine my score. I can’t influence them, except by my online behavior, and other people can’t vote me up or down like it was a popularity contest. As such, I can more easily ignore it, if I choose. Putting a dollar sign in front of the number makes me uncomfortable. Allowing other people to virtually buy or sell shares of me creates an awkward dilemma: either people don’t buy into me, which is faintly insulting, or they put a price on my value as a person, which is (to me) a bit more insulting.

Thinking it Through

Clearly I have to think through some of the counter-arguments I’ve read.

  • It’s like buying and selling shares on a stock exchange. Well, it might be, if this were a business account. But it’s my personal account and I am not for sale.
  • It’s a game. I disagree. It’s only a game if I agreed to play, and nobody invited me to play or asked my permission to be listed. If this were an opt-in game, I wouldn’t have a problem with it. (But I still wouldn’t join.) I don’t think online “games” like Mafia Wars are fun, either. I knew someone who got in trouble with the real Mafia, and his parents had to take a second mortgage on their home to get him out of trouble and prevent him ending up in the emergency room—or worse. Some things just aren’t fun—or funny—and in my mind buying and selling people is one of them.
  • The money isn’t real, it’s virtual. True enough, but my Twitter identity is a big part of how people see me online, and many of the people I know through social media I have never met in real life. That virtual self and those virtual relationships are important to me. And there are a few people I’ve met online first, then met face to face. Don’t you think it might be awkward meeting someone for the first time who “owns” part of you? I do.
  • It’s about your “real world ‘value score’.” That’s from Robert Scoble’s blog. By “value,” Scoble seems to mean literally assigning a monetary value to someone and allowing others to bid. I don’t value people that way. I prefer old-fashioned values (in the ethical sense) to dollars any day.

Those are just my first impressions. I’m still thinking about this and reading what others have to say. Maybe I’m missing out on some Next Big Thing. But that’s OK. I’ve missed out on a few of those, and I’ve learned it’s that there’s always another Next Big Thing around the corner. So if I miss out on this one, I’ll catch another.

There’s a Reason It’s Called Social Media

As I wrote in a comment on Scoble’s blog, “I enjoy the approval that comes with a connection on LinkedIn, a follower on Twitter, or a comment on my blog. They are personal engagements, not a financial transaction.”

That’s why it’s called social media. The most interesting people on social media have conversations, even if they are sometimes fleeting. They are social. It can be banter around the water cooler, or sharing a link because you think it’s interesting and somebody else might like it, too. Occasionally a conversation grows too large for Twitter and moves over to private e-mail or a blog, a conversation by phone or Skype, or a face to face meeting. Those are rare, but they can be special.

You can do whatever you like (after all, you’re a free person with rights), but I’m keeping the personal and the financial separate, even in my virtual life.

I’ve done a lot of thinking about this over the past two days—from not knowing anything about Empire Avenue to having a very strong gut reaction. (And I again want to say how pleased I am that they removed my information so promptly.) I would love to know what you think. Have you looked at the site? Have you checked your own listing or invested in anyone else? Do you think of it as merely a game or (like me) do you find it impossible to separate it from your real self? And if you know of any other blogs or articles about it, I’d like to have links.

13 thoughts on “I Am Not for Sale (But I Used to Be)

  1. Larry Garfield May 6, 2011 / 3:00 pm


    Indeed, if someone wants to engage in a pseduo-self-stock-market game, that’s their choice. But someone who doesn’t even know that they *have* the choice should not be sucked into it unknowingly, and I should not have to take extra steps to ensure that I stay out of such a system.

    You are correct that most people don’t read a TOS, privacy policies, etc. That is very sad, but true. Most people will go with whatever the easy option is, which is usually clicking “OK” on whatever the defaults are. That’s why checkboxes for “subscribe me to your advertisement newsletter” are always checked by default in most signup forms; most people don’t bother to change them, whatever the default. (This is all well-documented human behavior.) Similarly, people won’t sign up for a retirement plan through their company if they have to fill out a form, but will sign up if they have to fill out a form to be excluded from it. (Also documented human behavior, and happens at my company.)

    That’s why the selection of defaults is such an important decision, and not always clear cut. In this case, though, it seems clear cut to me: My data is mine, and companies have no right to use it without my affirmative opt-in consent.

    Most people forget, actually, that under current US copyright law even a simple tweet is copyrighted immediately upon posting, and copying it without the consent of the copyright holder is felony copyright violation. I don’t know if anyone has sued over that, but legally I believe they’d have a case.


  2. Paula Lee Bright May 4, 2011 / 2:34 pm

    I’m awed and amazed at the depth of insights and perspectives here. I came to toss in my two cents, but see no need! All my thoughts have been laid out here, both pro and con, and better than I could do it.

    I absolutely think that they should get people’s permission to be used in the game. It might slow down growth of the game, but not by too much. Most people would want the extra attention it would bring.

    I am on Empire Avenue, because a friend on #usguys introduced it ages ago. I thought he was in charge and joined out of courtesy. Ooops! Paula does it again. ;) (I’m known for my faux pas(s?)).

    I don’t play it or enjoy it, but it doesn’t bother me to be there. I doubt anyone even sees me there.

    Again, though, it was neat to see this in a deeper way than I’d ever thought about. It shows that there really are thinking people out in the wild, wild internets of our time.


  3. Karen E. Lund May 3, 2011 / 7:39 am

    Larry, you make some excellent technical points. People can become unwitting “players” in the game without signing the TOS (Terms of Service, for readers who many not know) and without even knowing that Empire Avenue exists.

    Beyond buying and selling people (which I concede is metaphorical on Empire Avenue, and more nearly true with some web tracking and advertising schemes), what prompted my analogy to slavery here is CHOICE. Slaves have no choice in their lives; free people do, even when we exchange our skills for a paycheck. I am increasingly certain that opt-in the the way to go for sites like Empire Avenue. To judge by tweets and reviews I’ve read, there are plenty of people eager to play and I have no objection to their doing so. I only want the right to choose.

    Stu made a good point when he wrote that I did what “other people would like to do probably, if they only knew” in e-mailing Empire Avenue and asking to have my information removed. You did the same. (From the website you linked to, I can see you know even more about technology than I.) Yet we are exceptions: the average user of Twitter or Facebook doesn’t think to look at the TOS, privacy policies, opt-in/opt-out links, or corporate e-mail addresses to answer their questions about a website or to ask that their information be altered, made private or removed. The ability to make an informed choice is what I am asking for.


  4. Larry Garfield April 30, 2011 / 5:22 pm

    While all this talk of “real slavery is the modern economic system” or “it’s just the openGraph” is well and good, it’s all missing a very important fundamental point.

    Karen, the original author here, is not a publicly traded corporation. She is not a celebrity who haa been “dragged into the spotlight” and therefore given up her right to some of her privacy. She is a private individual who has never engaged in a business contract with Empire Ave, a private company, and did not even know of their existence, and yet Empire Ave. has the audacity to use her and her activity for their own commercial ends. She had not signed their TOS, nor any other contract with them. Yet there they were, putting a price tag on her.

    Frankly, I find that beyond repulsive. Empire Ave is hardly the first company to do that, of course, but that doesn’t make it at all acceptable.

    Karen, thank you for bringing this issue to people’s attention. I don’t know if I am being “traded” on their site or not, but I have just sent Empire Ave. an email demanding that I NOT be included in their little game. I am very particular about what companies I do business with, and what social networks I participate in. (I object to people even uploading my picture to Facebook, which I am not on, and refuse to have anything to do with Apple whatsoever, for instance.) For Empire Ave, or any other company, to presume that just because I post tweets to certain friends and colleagues that I have somehow agreed to let them profit off of my likeness is beyond reprehensible and they should be ashamed of themselves.


  5. Duleepa Wijayawardhana April 28, 2011 / 9:25 pm

    Hi Karen, thanks for the Blog post and sorry you never checked it out. We never (ever) say that Empire Avenue is for everyone. And I certainly will never get into an argument with anyone on whether anything we do is right or wrong for them, we all have perspectives and we all examine everything from different angles.

    The slave analogy is very interesting because this is how *I* see it. And of course I help create and run Empire Avenue so feel free to dismiss my opinions and thoughts because of course I am jaded and want everyone to love “my baby” :)

    I personally view the fact that companies are making millions, nay billions of dollars of actual real-life capital on the things I do and the things I say without my permission as a form of slavery. At the very heart of slavery, and I do not mean the incredibly harsh existence many of our forebears had, and many more people living today are subject to, but instead in the very idea of what it means to be a “slave”, comes from you not knowing your value, indeed the value of what you do. You slave away at your work, whether you call it work, or pleasure and the masters keep you entertained and you have no idea you are making them rich. I liken what we do at Empire Avenue is to actually give you a price with which you can barter. Yes of course it’s a made-up price but then you can go away and *someday*, I hope, you will be able to turn to people and say, “no”. Thank you for allowing me to have a voice, but this is the price that I am worth.

    Of course as you might note, this is simply *one* perspective. When we started this, as I say ad nauseum, we were doing it on the basis that the future is in the content we create, the beauty that we produce and the great relationships that we put together in all facets of our online existence. We wanted you to know that value, grow that value and trade that value.

    Anyway, thank you for allowing me to comment, sorry that you didn’t join, but glad we could be of prompt assistance to you! We are able to chat with you at any time from a philosophical stand point to how this works on social psychology to anything, believe me we aren’t just trying to capitalize on a “neat” idea.

    Duleepa “Dups” Wijayawardhana
    Co-Founder/CEO, Empire Avenue


    • Karen E. Lund April 29, 2011 / 8:38 am


      Thank you very much for commenting on my post.

      There are certainly significant differences between “your baby” and the ills of the real world, but I was drawing an analogy. That someone on your team promptly removed my information after my first e-mail shows that Empire Avenue respected my feelings–and my freedom to choose.

      This post grew out of a conversation on Twitter that caused me to think well beyond 140 characters. I put my initial thoughts into a longer form here to share and get feedback. Your comment and Stu’s have definitely provided that!

      As I continue to think about it, part of my reaction was definitely because my Twitter handle and photo are me, personally, and not a business. If it were a business account I would most likely have had a very different reaction.

      If I may suggest something to you, it would be great if you provided an easy opt-out feature on the Empire Avenue site–or, even better, make the game opt-in so that those who want to participate can do so while those of us who don’t can sit it out. That would go a long way to making all viewpoints happy.

      Thank you again for your comment.



  6. Stu Rader April 28, 2011 / 3:50 pm

    Beautiful article, first and foremost about the low country of SC, near and dear to my heart. Aside from slavery being abolished there’s another whole realm to society that exists in many forms, whether legal or illegal immigration, migrant workers or combinations thereof. I’ve worked in establishments whose HR depts. required only an ID to work, which oftentimes was a forged document but relieved the employer from responsibility by having it on file, right or wrong.

    What I’m getting at is that there’s a big reason a person may work in and live simply within four walls as you pointed out in the “servants quarters” description. Bottom line, for some of these folks in modern times, is to send money back to their families in a country whose economy would not sustain the family unit otherwise.

    I have worked for 30+ years in and out of our the North American economy in Asia, the Middle East, Caribbean and several other situations including heavy conflict. I have seen lines of Hindi, Pakistani and others, at the end of a workday in Dubai over 3 miles long. Yes that’s a line of people, waiting to get a shower (maybe) enough sleep to get up, a little nourishment and do it again 24/7 for years at a time. One thing we must understand, whether they be South American in the US, Indian in Kuwait or Pakistani in Iraq, it has been a choice. When you sit and work with them, they are actually animated and happy to have forged their way through very stringent visa regulations to have the opportunity to sustain a better life all things considered. Animated and smiling, happy to share a cup of tea and get to know you in the one or two breaks they get during a long shift.

    I love people. I have more about that story but will leave it for another time.

    I now work in the tech side of social media and have done so for 3 years with skills I’ve acquired over several decades. The “openGraph” that has catapulted and embraced all things social is also about credentials, personal involvement in the networks, security settings, what and with whom you share. The openGraph is just what it says and of course people for the most part either know about it or simply don’t. If you use Twitter or Facebook the fact that you “exist” means the absolute minimum, based on settings, the blip on the chart is you. The remainder of the graph charts the holes opened by the networks based on your high level of security, total disregard or being totally oblivious – which is probably the case in 7 out of 10.

    What does this all mean to me. For those that participate in social commerce, we’re actually “objects” that are tracked in over a thousand ways for industry to analyze our habits for what is becoming the semantic web. The machines really don’t care “who” you are more than what you do. I joke around a lot with people telling them that their iPhone is going to tell them they need a haircut no matter what country they happen to be in when the time comes. That part however is really about participation and up to the individual but it’s nonetheless real.

    The comments above, outlining the difference between scoring systems of late are very relevant, because “disruptive” technology and start ups are all the rage. People with 73,000 twitter followers have a brand on their shoulder and obviously want to be center stage whether they are just a clever person, a brand or Rock Star.

    Empire Avenue vision has changed since the inception for sure, and they gage and alter how and what they do daily. Like removing you from the index. You were fair game in their estimation from the graph because you existed. You chose to be on the graph and I’d say no less than 50 other networks have you in the metrical mix for other purposes whether they put a stamp, dollar value or tattoo on your virtual self. Most networks now days like Quora and many have a simple checkbox to eliminate yourself from indexing. Facebook is slightly more complicated.

    You did what several million other people would like to do probably, if they only knew. In ending, I think that if you approached 10 who are really active socially and told them “Hey, your Twitter acct. is listed on Empire Avenue”, from 9 of them you’d draw blank stare first, and then “kewl” what’s it do?


    • Karen E. Lund April 29, 2011 / 8:28 am


      Wow. Just… Wow. You’ve given me a lot to think about beyond stock trading games online. I need to re-read your comment a couple of times before I reply, but for now thank you very much for sharing your thoughts with me and my readers.



  7. Heidi Cohen April 27, 2011 / 11:18 am


    Interesting way you set up the post and lots of thought on the subject. I agree that no one wants to be bought and sold. Even more importantly, a dollar amount to a human life can’t be assigned. Everyone is unique and special.

    But the reality is that we all assign value to our time and efforts in terms of our decisions of what we spend our time doing. More specifically, we make decisions that have monetary outcomes in terms of career and job choices.

    Happy marketing,
    Heidi Cohen


    • Karen E. Lund April 27, 2011 / 3:33 pm

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Heidi.

      I think you make a good point about valuing our time and efforts. When we isolate particular skills our the outcome of our efforts, it’s not difficult or demeaning to attach a monetary amount–indeed, we would like to see the results of our work appropriately valued.

      There is a whole person that is greater than the sum of our skills and effort and that is what I find difficult to monetize.


  8. Jeff Ryan April 27, 2011 / 8:18 am

    Klout, peer, etc put a “value” on your influence. This is why marketers like services like klout. You didn’t give permission to them to value (score),your social worth. Empire Avenue is no different except it is more complete and does have a gaming aspect to it.


    • Karen E. Lund April 27, 2011 / 8:39 am

      My contention is that it is different because it is a *dollar* value. As I said int the post, Klout and the rest give me a score, like a math grade or a batting average. Empire Avenue tries to put a dollar amount on it and “sell” shares in me.

      This may be one of those situations where you either get it or you don’t. I can see what you mean, as there is no real-world currency involved; but I cannot get over the horror I felt when I saw a $ in front of the number.


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