Yesterday I was going through some of my feeds when I saw something that made me stop and think for a while. It was an automatic update of Robert Scoble to Friendfeed. Robert turns out to be a Dopplr user and has set up his profile to feed automatically into Friendfeed. On Friendfeed we could read that Robert was returning to Half Moon Bay today.
Dopplr is a social networking service that lets you enter in your traveling schedule and share it privately with friends and colleagues. It then comes with all kinds of social functionalities that allow you, for example, to see if any of the people you know happens to be somewhere at the same time you are.
I’ve looked at Dopplr at an earlier stage but decided it wasn’t for me. But the way Robert used that service made me go back to his personal profile to see what Dopplr does. And it turns out there are (obviously) a lot of details available about his personal traveling schedule.
I feel that this is an example of social media use where having the ability to share anything with anyone reaches a privacy boundary we might not want to cross. There is nothing wrong with the Dopplr service itself (or with Robert for that matter). But when a service that advocates private sharing of personal information provides the user with the ability to share publicly things might get a little tricky. Especially if you are a naive user (Robert isn’t).
The power of social media lies in the ability for users to interact everywhere, any time and over any content thinkable. The tech community has embraced this ability and shares anything with anyone. Life streaming is the new magic word. Personally I find this concept highly overrated. Let’s face it, a lot of our daily activities aren’t interesting enough to share with the whole world. Our lives or the things we do aren’t the same as lives of famous pop stars. It’s weird to see pop stars wishing that they’d be left alone for a while when they get harassed by press and fans. At the same time the infamous (that would be us) try to get the rest of the world to observe them as if they were pop stars by providing a life stream of things that happen. Sorry guys, we aren’t that interesting and I doubt people will lose a night of sleep over my published life stream (yawn). The real underlying problem with life streams is that the things that get shared are useless as there isn’t intent in sharing. The technology allows us to share anything we want, so we do exactly that. Burying the possibly interesting stuff under a thick blanket of total waist. But I digress.
Having a life stream, connecting your daily steps to the outside world has many advantages. But there are also disadvantages that most are not aware of. I feel that the early adopter community isn’t discussing or exploring the privacy aspects enough. We tend to look at the technical side of things (wow, cool technology), or the functional side (hey, I can now share my traveling plans). But we don’t discuss privacy. Privacy is obviously a painful and difficult subject in relationship to social media. It’s something we leave to the service owner to protect. That is not only naive but completely useless. You can have the best privacy controls implemented in a service like Facebook, but who is protecting me from Facebook? Privacy must be the responsibility of the user. But the sad thing about it is that privacy is held in a death grip by social media, and it’s slowly choking and turning blue.
A Dopplr feed being publicly shared is a good example of this. The advantage of Robert publishing his traveling schedule is that he might be able to hook up with friends during his traveling. But it makes him vulnerable in a perhaps unexpected way. I told him on Friendfeed that if I were a thief, his traveling schedule would provide me with excellent information on his whereabouts. I’d know when he would be home and when not. And I sure would know his house is filled with all kinds of expensive technology (his life stream tells me that). It reminded me of a story on the news a few weeks ago. It turns out that car thieves in the Netherlands had found a very lucrative thieving method. They would go to the long parking area of our national airport and steal expensive cars with integrated car navigation systems. Then they would choose the “home” address on the navigation system and drive to the house of the unaware owners that were obviously on vacation. As a result, not only their expensive car was stolen, but their house was conveniently emptied too.
The information about being home or not is obviously just one example that can have a very unexpected result. We share much more then that. We talk openly about the things we like or not. We talk about people we do or do not like. We are often unaware how much information about ourselves and our thoughts we are sharing publicly. Thirty years ago we would probably need a private detective to find out stuff about other people. Now all we need is to be able to operate Google.
I don’t think sharing information is a bad thing. I do think that current web practices makes people very vulnerable, especially if they do not understand the consequences of their actions, or worse, leave their privacy to be protected by Facebook and the likes. It’s why privacy needs to be controlled by the user himself. This is impossible with current services and that is a dangerous trend. Social media can be more dangerous than you expect.