Saturday, October 31, 2009

Our Wide Open Future: The Sale of Your Information by Social Networking Sites

ezinetwitterproffit300In a predictable move (for anyone paying attention), Twitter has sold the rights to index its user updates (tweets) to both Microsoft and Google.

Two separate announcements were made Wednesday October 21st, and the moment passed without a pause in lives of Social Network-ers across the globe. First Microsoft declared at a technology conference in San Francisco that (Microsoft’s new internet search engine), will provide services that allow individuals to search through various tweets without being part of the Twitter server. Within three hours of the announcement, Google revealed via its blog that its search engine had already secured those very same services.

Neither company divulged how much these rights – the rights to index millions of public updates ranging from the most mundane, “Just got done eating lunch” by a high school friend to the controversy-igniting headlines that dominate the celebrity news market – had cost them to obtain. It is distinctly possible, however, that these deals will represent the first significant revenue for Twitter, which would join the elite, money-making rank with social networking giant, Facebook, who recently announced their first profit since their 2004 launch.

When Microsoft first began advertising for, veiling its attacks against Google as a “cure to search overload,” it seemed like a futile effort. To “Google” something is, after all, a verb in the Oxford English Dictionary. Few doubted that Microsoft’s puny projectile would do little more than scratch the surface of the Google Empire, but in the back of everyone’s minds was the understanding that the technology giant pressing the Big Red Button could never be counted out.

In this race for personal-update rights, Microsoft seems to have the upper hand. It launched a test version of the Bing-Twitter hybrid within hours of the announcement while Google is still promising that it will happen “soon.” Microsoft already handles Facebook’s intra-web search, and two years ago purchased a 1.6% share in the enterprise (a deal which cost Microsoft $240 million). On the other hand, Google has a nasty history with Facebook, in part because Facebook has lured away a few of Google’s top employees.

Business details aside, I feel a little unsettled. As if the fresh-yet-already-vicious competition between Microsoft and Google wasn’t enough to clog my advertising arteries, add to it the farcical wars over Best Social Networking Site and you get a lovely mash of terrifying irony.

Like many people in my generation and those generations above me, I often find myself disturbed about the treatment, mistreatment, and downright reckless treatment of personal information with the advent of the internet. It took a long time for social networking to overcome the public’s privacy fears, but with just the right tweaks it caught on like wildfire.

And why shouldn’t it? The ability to connect and reconnect with distant friends is one of the most valuable gifts the internet has given us. But in our rush to obtain this golden advantage, many of us unwittingly signed our souls away to companies that permanently own any private information or property that we choose to share, simply because we deluded ourselves into believing these pages were our personal sites. Or perhaps it wasn’t delusion. Perhaps we gave into the inevitable to gain the benefits we believed worthy of the sacrifice.

Beyond the fear that a potential employer will stumble on your old college drinking photos is the humbling and terrifying reality that our personal information is being sold for advertising purposes, and there’s nothing we can do about it. Grocery stores issue member cards that keep track of what you purchase. Internet retailers “suggest” products you might enjoy. Most of us sign up for accounts on various websites without more than glancing at the terms of agreement, and oftentimes these terms grant the website full right to use your image and information for profit.

While your personal preferences are being sold, social networking sites are also feeding the gluttonous belly of of the celebrity gossip monster. Clever journalists tear through celeb tweets, hoping for some shred of newsworthiness, and while they often do find it, they also tend to create it. I find celebrity gossip abhorrent, but the blinding velocity at which the vulture-journalists hurtle towards the bloated carcasses of celebrity-tweets embarrasses me. People treat 140-character sentences as real news, which it very nearly is in a perverted, paparazzi-esque sort of way. If you’re a famous athlete or the daughter of a political figure, it is irresponsible to have an account, but soon the vultures wont even need an account to find you – they can just Bing it.

Personal note - I just don’t feel like that one will catch on in the same way.

Even though this newest development in public indexing is barely a step above the current status quo, even though the current system does little to actually protect the privacy of its users against determined pursuers, it symbolically feels like a step too far for me.

We are entering a world where almost nothing can be kept secret, but it also seems that we’re entering one where few people seem to care. Identity theft is about money, not about our actual existential identity. We are freely expressing ourselves on the internet, fully aware that this expression is being publicized for the world to see. Do we pursue it because of a hidden desire for fame and attention? Is it because we feel we should have nothing to hide? I welcome your thoughts.

For myself, I wonder what this future holds for my generation. I can’t objectively understand what it means to live in a world where everything is out in the open, and information can be passed to thousands of people around the globe in less than a second, because it’s grown up around me. I wonder if it is truly as terrifying as I feel it is deep in the pit of my stomach, or if it’s just Halloween, and everything has me spooked. I won’t go so far as to invoke images of Big Brother and a distant war with Eurasia, but I will certainly stop to question: how worried should I really be about being on Facebook?