Big Data and Walter Lippmann Revisited: The Infomediary and 'Knowing Publics'

Posted: 16 May 2019 Last revised: 23 Jul 2019

See all articles by Jonathan A. Obar

Jonathan A. Obar

York University; Quello Center - Michigan State University

Date Written: May 13, 2019


If Walter Lippmann had lived to witness the rise of Big Data, and wrote Public Interest (1922) and The Phantom Public (1927) to address the fallacy of data privacy self-management, perhaps he might have argued for infomediation as an answer to the self-governance challenges posed. Continuing the discussion presented in "Big Data and The Phantom Public: Walter Lippmann and the Fallacy of Data Privacy Self-Management" through a new repurposing of Lippmann, it is argued that to achieve agency in the Big Data context, individuals need assistance. From consent challenges to reputation management of data-driven decision-making, and all quickly evolving in-between – the user is alone. The central privacy failure of our digital omnipresence is defined by an existence as both perpetual data subject, and as digital isolate. Addressing this dismal dichotomy is the focus of the current analysis with the aim of working towards the realization of digital privacy and reputation deliverables. This paper presents Kennedy and Moss’ concept of shifting from “known” to “knowing publics” as a central aim of infomediation, with the goal of reifying an elusive user agency in light of the Big Data deluge. An infomediary model is introduced, beginning with four areas of reflection, drawn from Lippmann, suggesting infomediaries should: 1) help overcome information asymmetries, 2) help overcome time limitations, 3) generate narrow choices, and 4) ensure narrow choices lead to clear results. Repurposing Lippmann’s call for a difficult-yet-delivering delegation, with the aim of achieving individual agency through “more reflexive and active (knowing) publics,” the infomediary is proposed in an attempt to throw the user a life preserver.

Keywords: Privacy, Big Data, Consent, Infomediary, Walter Lippmann, Surveillance, Agency

Suggested Citation

Obar, Jonathan A., Big Data and Walter Lippmann Revisited: The Infomediary and 'Knowing Publics' (May 13, 2019). Available at SSRN:

Jonathan A. Obar (Contact Author)

York University ( email )

4700 Keele Street
Toronto, Ontario M3J 1P3

Quello Center - Michigan State University ( email )

East Lansing, MI 48824
United States

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