This week’s blog storm centered around Robert Scoble. He temporarily lost his Facebook account because he got caught trying to scrape what he erroneously believed was “his” data into Plaxo using a script that violated Facebook’s terms of service.
My takeaway: Plaxo scares the @#^ out of me.
But before I get into that, let me say this…
It’s not about data portability. It’s about trust.
Offline, my friends and I share a mutual connection. Maybe it’s around work, maybe it’s around our kids or something in our past. Whatever it is, they’re my friend because they know something about me beyond what’s easily accessible to others. Keyword here is mutual. I know a bit about them too. Their relationship with me is unique as compared to their relationship with others.
I subscribe to a number of magazines. My relationship with those publishers is different than the one I share with my friends. I give them only as much information as they need to deliver their service to me. While I may hold their service in high regard, they are not my friends. They treat me as a commodity, easily bought…and sold. They may use what they know about me to their own advantage. Offline, no one would confuse this relationship for “friendship.”
Online, those lines are blurred. For what I would guess is at least 4,500 of the 5,000 “friends” Robert Scoble has on Facebook, he is the equivalent of a magazine publisher and you are his subscriber base/audience. He says it’s mutual and that’s the beauty of the social and connected web, but he only cares about you when you put something on the table that he’s interested in. It’s not about you. Yet, he’s “sitting” right next to your real friends, getting the same information about you that you’re sharing with them. If he takes that information and abuses it, however un- or good-intentioned, it serves you both right.
Last year, I came to the realization that I was not comfortable with this arrangement and I quietly “unfriended” him. Don’t misunderstand me…I’m not blaming Robert. He’s been very successful pushing the envelope on these sites. I’m happy for him…from a distance beyond “friendship.”
I only have around 80 contacts in my Facebook. When I get a Facebook friend request, I ask myself these questions: “Does this person know something about me that they didn’t learn from my blog or other public outlet? Do I know something about them that’s deeper than their public persona? Are they asking me out of a desire for mutual connection and respect?”
The stuff I have in Facebook isn’t that personal. But I still trust the 80 or so individuals who have access to it not to abuse that information because we have mutual affection for each other and I matter. They matter. As individuals. Friends. Not have-a-sleepover-and-do-our-nails kind of friends, but there’s care and mutual respect nonetheless. And it doesn’t matter whether or not we’ve met in person.
Robert Scoble valued his relationship with Plaxo more than he valued his relationship with his “friends,” otherwise he would have posted to them what he was doing with an experimental, alpha-quality and untested script before he did it…or he wouldn’t have done it at all.
So why does Plaxo scare me?
Because it’s a matter of trust, and I don’t trust them. Fine, you say, don’t give them any data. Oh, but that’s the scary part…it’s not my choice.
Right this minute, Plaxo probably knows your email address, your phone number, and where you work. You may have never visited their site, but if you’re online and with their how many million members there’s a good chance that someone who has you in their address book with accurate data has shared that information with Plaxo.
Fine, you say, they’re not the only web service that stores/collects this data as part of a broader web service. Oh, but that’s the scary part…midway through the game, they not only changed the rules, they changed the game.
They started being only about the data. Keep your address book up to date. If someone is a Plaxo member they can update their data and you don’t have to bother them for it. You can keep your contact data in sync between multiple devices. It was just about you and your data.
And then they changed the game. Now it’s not about the data, it’s about the relationships. They decided they were a social network. Now they not only know your email address, phone number and where you work, they know who your friends are and they know the sites you like. Not because you told them, but because they are using your friends to build your social graph. The fact that you are or are not a “member” is besides the point.
Having the information is one thing. Graphing it and building a company on the value of that graph with the potential to exploit it is something else. Taking data you’ve gathered for one purpose and then using it for something else without the users’ consent is just slimey.
Plaxo wants to get into the “new shiny” of social networking, great. I’m happy for them. Join the club, no pun intended. Start a new company. Start from scratch as a social networking site using data that you’ve gathered from people who know that you’re a social network. This got Google into trouble, too, you know. People don’t like when you change the game in the middle. Especially when it’s their data and privacy on the line.
And now Plaxo is for sale. And no one else has a problem with this?!?! If you have $100 million to spare, you can have it all. Who is going to make sure that you don’t use it for barely-legal, just-this-side-of-evil purposes? Robert Scoble?!?!
You’re right, you say. I want out, you say. I don’t want a company on the edge of being handed over to new management to know that much about me and my relationships. Oh, but that’s the scary part…you can’t get out. Because you never consented to get in.
Plaxo gives absolutely no option to remove what they know about you and your connections from their database, member or not. You can choose not to join, you can cancel and delete your account once you do join (as I did). You can even opt-out and they won’t contact you. But that doesn’t mean that they’ll remove your data and the connections they’ve graphed about you and your relationships from their systems.
And let’s say you get Plaxo to take you completely out. 30 minutes later a friend adds you to their address book and decides, as is their right, to sync that data to Plaxo and you’re right back in. You may not have an account, but they know that you’re a contact in Joe Member’s list and Mary Member’s list and…
I chose to join Facebook. I chose to join LinkedIn. I chose to be on Twitter, knowing full well that what I say there is publicly available to folks who want to look for it. Until I accepted that first friend request or signed up, while someone could have information about me on those servers…maybe as a note or in another context, the company was not making connections about what they knew about my relationships. And if they were, they certainly weren’t bragging about it.
Plaxo is dangerous as well as scary.
When they sell, what will be the next game the new (or existing) owners will play with your data and relationships?