April 29, 2010

No Such Thing as Privacy

Print More

We live our lives on the internet. Whether that’s literally (i.e. Second Life) or figuratively, a lot of what people know about us and a lot of how we define ourselves is out on the internet. Note that this isn’t actually by choice, it’s more the amalgamation of 10s of user accounts at countless different web portals with countless different purposes. You probably have an account with the New York Times; they know everything about your news reading habits. You have an account with Facebook; they know everything about your social habits. Among other things, you probably have an account with Google and they pretty much know everything about you. For some, big flashing lights go off in their head at the idea that what they put on the internet isn’t ever private.  For those Luddites who fight the internet, and tell themselves that their privacy can be protected, I’m sorry to tell you that you are the weakest link.  Good-bye.

No matter what you put on Facebook, whether it’s innocent shots of you and your grandmother, or you raging at Dino’s, nothing is quite private.

But aside from all the concerns about privacy — and honestly it’s a little late to have concerns if you’re using Facebook — the internet is becoming an increasingly better place.

Last week was Facebook’s annual F8 conference, where they release new features to developers. This year Facebook introduced the Open Graph API and Social plugins. Both of these seem pretty tame at first, if you’re not a computer scientist you probably think that Open Graph is some sort of great Excel alternative, and social plugins could be social wall sockets.

The Open Graph is probably something very few of you will ever use directly, but all of us will be a part of.  Imagine being able to have information about you passed throughout the internet, allowing individual websites to customize their experience for you without you raising a finger. Yes, the internet just went to the fast food business model. Are we going to get fat on this?  Oh, definitely.

Imagine that you’re a power user on Yelp and you have shown your support for a flurry of restaurants, you visit The New York Times and not only do they know about all those restaurants you like, they customize their front page to show you more restaurant-related articles. The internet as we know it now has the tool to become a fundamentally different place.

Recently I sat down with the founder of Opzi, a startup based out of Silicon Valley. Opzi is all about asking questions and finding the right people to answer — and it uses Facebook to do so. Opzi currently focuses solely on the Cornell community, trying to create connections between undergrads and alumni, pre frosh and professors and everything in between. Though asking a question on the internet has always been easy, asking a question and getting an answer from the right person has always been difficult. That has changed with Opzi.

Sites all across the net are integrating Facebook into the way they operate, whether it’s news sites like CNN or The Sun, entertainment sites like IMDb, or your favorite iPhone app.  Social networking adds an entirely new layer onto the way that we interact with the web, and with others.

Recently I was spending an ungodly amount of time on Facebook, not atypical for a college student who likes to procrastinate. I wasn’t totally unproductive though; I didn’t plant any seeds in Farmville or take out any mobsters in Mafia Wars, but I did reconnect with a lot of people that I probably would have never talked to had it not been for Facebook — people who actually had information that I really wanted, but I didn’t even know they had.

We exist in an ever-shrinking world, a place where information seems to be everywhere, and yet the right information is still hard to find. Finding out where the class of ’10 is going to be a few months from now, understanding how to get a job at Google and figuring out why exactly Ithaca weather sucks so much would be nearly impossible without the internet and the social features of Facebook. As with any question (and I’ve tried to explain this to a professor but he simply wouldn’t listen) there are tons of correct answers, but the right answer often eludes us. With services like Opzi based upon Facebook, the right answer may be the only answer.

Now let’s just hope that people use these great social features for good and not evil. For example, Google stop reading my email so that you can show me irrelevant ads, and people, stop with the damn Farmville requests. I do not want to start a farm, I don’t want to raise any animals, I just want to see pictures of drunk people.   RLD

Original Author: Rahul Kishore