freaking out this week about a Wall St. Journal article challenging Facebook's passing of some limited User ID numbers to 3rd party companies, including advertisers. Many people consider it a privacy violation.The Internet, Congress and possibly your Mom are all
I challenged Facebook as vehemently as anyone on the Internet a year ago when the company switched its user privacy setting from default private to default public, but this latest critique really misses the mark. Distribution of publicly available user data in bulk is wildly valuable - and not just for advertisers. Here are three examples of great things built by user data passed around the web.
The following examples have nothing to do with advertising. They are examples of beneficial uses of bulk-extracted, publicly available social network user data. It's because of technologies like these, and many more that could be created to enrich our lives, that Facebook ought to make more information about users available - not less.
That should be done with our consent as users, but discussion of the upsides is an important part of the discussion. So is development of technology that's worth sharing your data with. If all people know about is advertising use of this data, that may not be worth it to them to expose even the simplest information about themselves. But there's potential for a whole lot more.
Rapportive is a Gmail plug-in that uses data from Rapleaf, one of the companies at the center of the Facebook privacy flare-up. Rapportive maps the email adresses of people you're corresponding with to their publicly available social network data captured by Rapleaf. Rapportive users can see the pictures, names, careers and recent online activity of people they email with. It's incredibly useful. A privacy violation? Hardly.
Twiangulate is a service that analyzes public friend connections on Twitter and identifies who selected users have in common as people they follow. Below, George Stephanopoulos, Anna Marie Cox and Wolf Blitzer all follow a little-known man named Tony Fratto. That's valuable information. Is it a privacy violation? You might think so...if you were dropped into Twitter from a time machine. This is just savvy, and savvy people good and bad are going to use this kind of knowledge.
Cross reference public user data with any other type of data and you can learn something, especially when location is included. Does musical taste correlate with type of restaurants available? Education level and density of neighborhood grocery stores? Mentions online of the word "Limbaugh" (mapped below) and the proximity of toxic waste spills of neurotoxins? The public wants to know.
Above: OpenHeatMap maps Twitter search results. Machines are tracking what you say - but is that a threat? This looks like a social good to me. OpenHeatMap was built by social network data hacker Pete Warden, who has published some very interesting observations based on bulk analysis of Facebook data.
"I love the term 'data exhaust'," Warden says. "People are spewing out so much information that is completely non-sensitive and individually boring, but when you get enough of it patterns emerge."
This Summer, Pete Warden wrote a post on his blog titled "Why I Do What I Do. Included in that post were these words, explaining what this one man who extracts and analyzes publicly available social network user data thinks about doing that.
I always was a spacey kid, off in my own world. My mother claims I never made a sound until I was one year old, I was always sleeping, and all of my early memories are of solitary thinking or dreaming. It came as a shock to discover that I was sharing the world with other people, and that sense of wonder never quite wore off. I still get a shiver up my spine every time I think about the fact that there are 6 billion other people on this planet right now. Think about that for a second. Try to imagine a thousand people standing in a crowd. Now picture a crowd a hundred times bigger. The world is made up of sixty thousand of those massive crowds.
What keeps me up at nights is that I know every one of those people has a story I'd love to sit down and hear. Human lives are like fractals, there's so much depth I never get tired of learning about people's journeys, but I'm only ever going to glimpse the tiniest fraction of a sliver of all those stories.
Think about all of the people who pass each other in the street every day and never talk. There must be so many pairs who'd fall madly in love, or would write a symphony together, find the cure for cancer if they collaborated, or just become lifelong friends, but they never meet. I can only imagine how many wasted lives could be salvaged just by making the right connections.
Everything I've been driven to do, from weaving live footage of concert-goers into my visuals, to automatic expert location, to mapping social networks, has come from those urges to connect people and hear their stories. It feels like a victory against entropy to be able to say 'You guys should talk' and watch something beautiful grow.
Can you picture what the social network of the planet looks like? Imagine the richness and beauty of the web of relationships between six billion people. I can picture it in my minds eye, glimpses at least, an amazing view of each persons ties to thousands of others, constantly evolving and changing. Every individual's network is a snapshot of their life's story, and the sum of them is the story of the world.