Friday, March 21, 2008

Private service announcement.The other day I got an email that kind of spooked me: it had the subject line, "People are searching for you on Spokeo". Online social networks recruit users like this: they tell you that people you know are doing something online and that you'll need to sign up to find out what it is. Many people dislike social networking systems for this herd mentality and for what seems like an artificial and cynical replacement of "real" interaction with mouse-clicks and avatars. And as I've noted, I am uncomfortable with the proprietary "walled garden" nature of many of these systems. But I also believe that they can be personally or professionally valuable, and that if judiciously used, you can make the benefits outweigh the pitfalls.

Spokeo, however, is not a social networking system. It's something altogether different - an aggregator or feed reader for social networks. And it is by no means the only one - apparently social network aggregators (aka "lifestreaming") are the new hot startup, and there are at least 20 players in the market. Spokeo has been going since 2006; the current market leader is Friendfeed, which seems the most powerful: it harnesses a vast range of social networks and is searchable, so you can see when people are talking about you! Other players include SocialThing! and Secondbrain. is another one, currently in private beta, that specialises in status updates from Twitter, Facebook, Jaiku, Tumblr and Pownce.

Social aggregators are like search engines - you provide a starting point and they bring back lots of information for you. This is different to RSS readers like Google Reader, Bloglines, or whatever one you use, where you add feeds from the information you know is out there and you are then updated on the latest activity on your favourite websites. When you head to the Spokeo website, you get the blurb: "Spokeo finds your friends' blogs and photos that you never knew about, guaranteed." It makes it sound almost like a stalking app!

Here's how it works. It harvests email addresses from your webmail contact list (it supports various webmail systems; presumably when you don't use webmail it prompts you to paste in your address book manually) and then any social network profiles linked to those addresses become entries in your feed, and you get updated every time they update their accounts. Of course, a lot of the time these are old or inactive accounts, because you might have someone's old email address, or they might have lost interest in whatever they signed up for, so it will take a while after signing up for your contacts' real online activities to reveal themselves.

Most people don't think very much about the privacy implications of their email addresses: they're seen as a relatively "safe" item of personal information to give out, because what's the worst that could happen? Spam? Also, many websites that require your email address to sign in don't display it to others, and you could be under the impression that you can sign up to stuff without people being aware of your activities. However, as long as someone has the email address you used to sign up for a social network, Spokeo and similar sites can find you.

The email addresses in my contact book belong to my past and present bosses, co-workers, clients and suppliers, my friends, family members and family friends, and randoms including people who emailed me once about a spare room in my house. I use Gmail, which has some algorithm that saves all email addresses to your address book, even from group emails which include people I don't know. So now I have access to information about people I don't necessarily know or like, and they probably have access to all mine as well.

Spokeo is not an information-sharing meta-network. No user has access to any other user's feeds or contacts, and the subjects of the feeds do not know who is tracking them. That's why they send out those courtesy emails: they are a heads-up that the public information you have posted online is being accessed by others using their system. The emails are not really trying to recruit you to Spokeo, and you can't discover who has you in their feeds by signing up to Spokeo. If you are worried about strangers using it to find your stuff, you will need to go to each of your social networks and change your privacy settings.

Here are the applications that I've noticed Spokeo can access. (As I said above, Friendfeed is more powerful and can access Facebook, Twitter and even your RSS feeds on Google Reader.)

Windows Live Spaces

Personally I think they're pretty small biscuits in terms of potentially incriminating information (some people - not me, clearly - might be embarrassed about others knowing they have Pandora stations such as "Awesome 70s Power Rock Radio" and once bookmarked a Bon Jovi track). Note also that it only accesses them if your profile is public; if it's private or friends-only, a Spokeo user who is one of your friends on that application can view the content, but no other Spokeo users can.

Rather than panicking and deleting all our social network memberships, we need to think about the ways we negotiate private and public online. People who argue that "information wants to be free", like Social Computing magazine's Dion Hinchcliffe, seem to me to be ignoring the basic fact that it creeps people the fuck out to know that their online activities, many of them personal, are being broadcast to people they know. This is the same anxiety that made Facebook Beacon such a dismal failure (although Beacon was another kind of bogeyman, too - people have a real knee-jerk dislike of being marketed to).

I've written before about the willingness with which many people waive their right to privacy by publishing so many of their activities online. But there also seems to be an unacknowledged private public sphere, in which you realise on one level that your online activities are visible, but you assume nobody will bother to seek them out, or that nobody will link them all to each other to form a more complete picture of you. Social aggregators puncture this illusion of public privacy.

Ultimately, if this bothers you, you should create a private email address that you never actually use for correspondence, and use this for all your online social networking. Alternatively, you should make sure that you are happy with the complete publicity of all information you put online about yourself. Or you can turn to the growing online reputation management industry.

Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Site Meter