Sunday, December 20, 2009

Would you pay for Facebook?

It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that we spend the majority of our waking lives trading resources, participating in several economies. The simplest example of this is the financial transactions we make. We trade a limited resource, money, for other limited resources, good and services. Everyday at work, we trade a very limited resource, time, for money. In addition to fiscal transactions, we constantly trade on social markets. We do what we can to do nice things for others (writing a note to let someone know when we appreciate something, fixing friends’ computers, etc.) in exchange for people being nice to us in return. The nicer you are to people, the more social capital you accrue and the more other people will want to be nice to you. In this case, we are trading on intangibles: we’re trading time/effort for good will, and maybe eventually, time/effort in return. But perhaps the most fascinating exchange we trade on – whether we realize it or not – is with your Internet usage, where we frequently trade a limited resource, information about ourselves, in exchange for services like Google and Facebook.

Google trades us something we want, the ability to give order to the vast expanse of the Web, in exchange for a little bit of ourselves, the knowledge that we seek added to a database that makes Google smarter by the second. As Google becomes smarter (as it learns more about us), we trade on our privacy. Make no mistake, Google and Facebook are not free: you’re paying, just not with money. So, I ask this: would you pay some nominal monthly fee to use Google or Facebook rather than surrender your privacy with each query?

Targeted advertisement is the bread and butter of sites like Facebook and Google. It’s not a secret that Facebook ads are presented to us based on information that we provide in our profiles. For example, if you tell Facebook that you’re over 21 years old and list your zip code, you may start to get ads for bars in your area. If you list drumming as one of your activities, you may start getting ads for the newest, coolest snare drum. If you get an email to your GMail account that references baseball, you may start getting ads for Phillies tickets. If you search the Web for “Hawaii,” you may have ads for travel agents flanking your search results. These instances are examples of what some think of as the constant watchful gaze of “Little Brother.” Whereas Orwell’s “Big Brother” refers to government-to-citizen surveillance, this younger sibling refers to business-to-consumer surveillance – capturing information about customers for use in generating revenue.

But what if you’re uncomfortable with all of your information being sold to advertisers? After all, most of the info that we post to Facebook is password-protected, intended for friends and family. We consider our search queries to be private (even though they are not), a map of our thought processes and the information that we seek. What if we don’t want this information harvested and used in commerce? Well, then someone would have to pay for all of these “free” services that we consume. Someone would need to compensate Facebook and Google for their server resources and staff and perpetual innovation. That someone would still be us, except if we didn’t pay with the slow erosion of our privacy, we would have to pay in good old cash.
So, the question becomes, would you do it? Would you pay $5/month for Facebook and $10/month for Google in exchange for preserving some degree of privacy? You probably pay for Netflix now (am I being presumptuous? I assume that most people have Netflix). Conversely, would you take your Netflix for free if all of the movies you watched were cataloged and used to sell you DVDs? I suspect that in the future, we will have to make a choice.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Teaching Traceability - When RO is RW

I introduced the students in my class to Google Analytics. The purpose of this exercise was not to demonstrate how to properly "monetize" (oh, man, do I hate that word) a site, but rather to demonstrate the breadth of information harvested, even when we just visit a site.

Analytics, using a small bit of Javascript code embedded in the website a user visits, gathers information such as the city/state/country of each visitor, the search terms they typed into their search engine to get to your site, the network they came from (e.g. which university's Internet connection they are using, Comcast, etc.), the amount of time they spent on the site, the way they got to the site (Facebook link, link from another web page, etc.). In other words, it harvests a lot of information about a site's visitors, potentially personally-identifiable information. The interesting part: most sites run this code, and you don't need to post any information about yourself to have information taken.

For me, being a datahead, I like to think in terms of read-only (RO) and read-write (RW) when it comes to information. In his book Remix, Lawrence Lessig speaks about RO culture vs. RW culture. He uses it to juxtapose the old paradigm of cultural consumption (listening to music, watching movies, reading text) - RO - with the modern process of collaboratively creating culture by using technology to create music, videos, and text that build upon other works (remixes) - RW. I know that this is technically inaccurate, but I often think of the old Web, Web 1.0, as being RO. Sure, anyone could post to it with a text editor (or Netscape Communicator) and an FTP client, but you had to know some HTML have have access to an animated GIF of a guy digging. :) That is, content was created by a small, select group of nerds. I think of the modern, Web 2.0 culture of being RW - it's trivial to write information to the web by filling out a form (blogs, comments, Facebook), no knowledge of the workings of HTML required. Therefore, it's more open, more egalitarian; anyone can contribute without having to be a tech guru.

That said, we often think of posting information to web to come from RW activities - updating Facebook/Twitter, posting to a blog, tagging a picture, etc. So, I find it both interesting and a little scary the amount of information we "post" to a site just by engaging in an RO activity, browsing web pages, classic Web 0.1. In a standard session of browsing the Web, you leave this information on every site that you visit, possibly more information than you intentionally post to your Facebook site - your current location, the terms you search for, etc. At least on Facebook, you consciously choose which information to post.

So, I guess the moral of the story is that everything you do on the web is RW. We constantly leave a breadcrumb trail as we visit sites, usually without knowing we're doing so. I'll show you how to leave less of a trail tomorrow.

Until then, I'm off to check my Analytics to see how you got to my site...