You’re meeting someone at a party for the first time. He introduces himself to you.
“Hi. I’m Tim Eastwood. I’m 29 years old, live in San Francisco. I’m married to Laura, have 3 children Joe, James, and Jenny.”
During the conversation you have with Tim you learn that he votes Republican, that he isn’t a religious person, that his wife and him got into several near-break up fights in the past. That he got fired recently and is now looking for a job. Yesterday he was at the Starbucks at 1390 Market Street. He loved the cappuccino but didn’t like the sandwich. His best friend Joe is gay, Tim is ok with that. Tim’s e-mail address is email@example.com, he has a bank account with the Bank of America, and uses as Visa credit card which he happened to use yesterday when he bought the book “The Bush tragedy” at Amazon. You’ve seen ton’s of pictures of Tim, his wife, and their three children. You know what schools the children visit, and what movies they like to watch. That is just for starters. Before you know it, all of Tim’s friends pass by with descriptions, believes, quotes, photos, things they are doing right now.
Triggered by his enthusiasm you tell Tim a lot about yourself too. You are engaging in an open conversation and it feels great.
While you are talking, you begin to notice that people surrounding you have stopped their conversations and are clearly listening in to your conversation with Tim. To make matters worse, you then realize that the host of the party is filming the entire conversation, projecting it on a big screen.
Sounds crazy? It’s exactly what we are doing right now on the web. In real life we would never disclose so much about ourselves, family, friends, believes etc. to someone we just met. In the real world repercussions of disclosing personal information tends to be contained within the group of people listening in and gossiping about it. Online things are different. Once recorded, it never disappears. And yet when we get online we disclose it all.
It’s a topic that keeps fascinating me. It’s hard to understand why people tend to feel that their online lives somehow are disconnected from real-life. Almost to a point that their online profile or identity is an alter ego, it feels like someone else. While we may pretend that when we go online it isn’t really us, the reality is that our identity, interactions and data are collected, stored, and commercially exploited. Do we know? Do we care? Hard to say. All we know is that there are hundreds of millions of people joining in this ‘global conversation’ via social networks like Facebook, Twitter, MySpace etc.
There is a clear responsibility for a user to stay in control of his privacy, but at the same time we can safely say that most are lured into this conversation by companies that offer substantial benefits without disclosing what the user is giving up for it in return. Facebook takes privacy seriously, it provides the user complex and hard to use privacy settings. While this sounds great, it’s a hoax. When Facebook talks about privacy it means the privacy of the user towards other users. It doesn’t talk about the privacy of the user with respect to Facebook and it’s business model. Facebook doesn’t provide the user with a switch that prevents Facebook itself from exploiting the user commercially. And it provides 3rd parties simple means to extract your entire profile without consent.
This schizophrenic behavior is caused by the underlying business model. Web 2.0 is driven by the network effect. Value is created by those that own the largest networks (social graphs) and hog the most data. Data is the currency on the web. Evangelists like Tim O’Reilly have been telling us this for a long time now. In my opinion the biggest tragedy of the success of web 2.0 is its failure to put the user in control of his identity and privacy.
[update] TechCrunch writes about the latest Facebook plans. It’s consistent with their strategy of becoming the de facto social web. And the Next web talks about plans of Facebook to share your e-mail address with 3rd party developers. These are again not user-driven but network driven plans.
Don’t get me wrong. I do not object by default to commercial exploitation of user data. I do object to the fact that a user isn’t opting in on it and that he really has no control over his privacy or identity whatsoever. Robert Scoble has said many times he doesn’t mind giving up privacy because he gets more value in return. The upside of talking in public about a disease might be that you will find others in the same position sharing their experiences with you. The downside may be that you won’t be hired for a next job because the company has access to your medical condition. How many of those hundreds of millions have made that same conscious choice? Do people really understand that when they join a service like Facebook they are exposing themselves, their children, their family and friends to a company that exploits their interactions?
There is only one way out of this. We need to get out of this confining web 2.0 definition and build new business models. Business models that are not based upon network effects and hogging user data. We need user-centric business models. And with that we will see user-centric services appear. Services that have a clear and transparent business model. Services that generate revenue by delivering user value. Services that do not depend on customer lock-in but on user freedom. Services in which the balance of power has shifted from the company that exploits to the user that receives value. A new balancing act.
In the ecology that is build around the user-value principle users can manage their online identity and privacy tools. And they can make a conscious decision to share relevant personal information in return for value. The big difference is that the user will be in control. And that may very well be the scariest thing for companies to get used to.
If we want to be free, we need to break free of web 2.0 thinking.