Until recently, the information flow on social media has been in one direction.

We post, comment, tweet and move around the Web leaving digital crumbs everywhere, which data brokers quietly vacuum up. Then they crunch all that into a profile to figure out what advertisements to show.

But what if we could see our dossier? Would we rise up and demand laws restricting data brokers? Would we change what we do online? Or would we just shrug and move on?

I've taken a look at a few portraits of myself online, and they're jarring, like peering into a funhouse mirror. But it's important to take a look anyway.

I checked out myself on aboutthedata.com, a website by Acxiom, the marketing technology firm, and it has my basics generally right -- age, gender, the number of kids I have, their ages and our household's general interests like "children's items."

Household income is off, as is the kids' gender, but that reassures me, that even powerful data miners don't have a direct view into my tax filings and my home.

But that sense of reassurance is misplaced, says Irina Raicu, director of the Internet Ethics program at Santa Clara University.

"The profiles are being used not only to market to us, but also there is a predictive aspect to this," she said, adding that several industries such as insurance are based on making predictions. "I don't know what is worse, if they have accurate information or inaccurate information."


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Then again, Acxiom could be holding back. When it launched the website last year, some criticized the firm for not offering a complete picture of what it collects and markets, such as whether a person is a "potential inheritor" or lives in a household with a senior or someone with a health condition.

Over at Google's Ad Preferences, I see a list of my 30 interests that seem generally right. However, I do not need to see ads related to "intellectual property," so I deleted that category.

But then there are those who offer a darker portrait.

"You go through life unaware of the digital shadow you cast," says a website created by Ubisoft Entertainment, as part of promoting "Watch Dog," its video game that highlights privacy and hacking.

Its analysis organizes my Facebook friends into categories I had never thought of before -- "Pawns," "Stalkers," "Scapegoats" and "Liabilities," the latter referring to the people who tag me in photos.

The folks at Five.com, a startup, offer their own analysis of people's Facebook image based on five personality characteristics, such as "openness" and "neuroticism," which it defines as "experience unpleasant emotions easily, such as anger, anxiety, depression, and vulnerability."

Then it allows visitors to compare their qualities to those of famous people or Facebook friends. Since it launched earlier this month, it has analyzed 200 million Facebook profiles, the company says.

It's a fun diversion. Turns out, with high neuroticism, I'm most like the Miami Heat's LeBron James.

But there is a serious point to it all, says Nikita Bier, a co-founder and chief executive of Five.com.

"A lot of people don't realize that it's possible to extract information that you didn't explicitly give permission to extract," he said. His firm is working on a social network that would allow multiple conversations but, like a dinner conversation, the transcript would evaporate after it was over. And thus, in theory at least, there is nothing for the data miners to mine.

So am I better off seeing these portrayals of my online persona?

These portraits are "habituating" us to the idea that "the real way to understand you is through analyzing data," said Joseph Turow, a professor of communications at The Annenberg School for Communications at the University of Pennsylvania. "It's another step in the quantification of the individual."

Maybe, but these snapshots are a step toward transparency in learning how we are viewed online. In fact, what we need is a right to the full dossier, much like asking credit agencies for one's credit report. What I do with the information remains to be seen.

But first I'm going to have a talk with my "liabilities" on Facebook.

Contact Michelle Quinn at 510-394-4196 and mquinn@mercurynews.com. Follow her at twitter.com/michellequinn.