We should clarify just what we mean by "privacy" in this context, because I think the traditional privacy debate is in the process of being turned on its head.
I think "privacy" has generally meant restricting access to personal information in order to 1) prevent identify theft and other information-based crimes, 2) stop spam and other intrusive commercial appeals, and 3) maintain an abstract sense of individual dignity through discretion.
But, taking those issues in reverse order:
Tim Oren had a great post recently, resulting from his research into "consumer privacy, data aggregation, and marketing analytics," that's both funny and insighful on the current state of the privacy debate. On the humorous side, he tweaks everyone who has a stake in this issue:
I haven't seen a domain with more zealots since the early crypto market. There are zealous marketers sure they can make their customers more loyal and profitable if only can pool all the known data about them. There are privacy zealots, who often don't seem to believe in marketing at all - or maybe even markets. And there are zealous computer scientists and security experts, sure the whole matter can be resolved with the right algorithms. And now that the press and politicians are coming to the party, we can expect the discourse to become even more informative.
As for his insights, he proposes a Hierarchy of Unease (a riff on Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs) that suggests different levels of privacy-related violations:
1. Direct Financial Loss, or Threat of Same. Anything from credit card or check theft and fraud, to emptying of bank accounts via EFT, or full-up identity theft...
2. Intrusion. ...This can range from dinner time phone calls, to spam, to (less commonly) junk mail or pop-ups and interstitials. Unfortunately for marketers, the volks-wisdom has these all largely conflated.
3. Compartment Breach. We all segment our lives to some extent: family, career, friends, hobbies, finance, politics, religion, and so on. The configuration, number, and fervor with which these compartments are defended are highly idiosyncratic. But a third party information transfer that crosses one of these boundaries feels like a larger breach of privacy...
4. Loss of Information Asymmetry. Consumers usually encounter information asymmetry on the down side: the loan officer, real estate agent, or contractor who knows far more about the market and has much more deal making experience. But the individual has always had a few hidden cards of his or her own - knowing the real details of one's state of health, financial conditions, motivations for a purchase, and so on. Data transfer or analysis that puts those cards face up when consumers must make a deal feels like an affront.
5. Everything Else. A great deal of 'private' information does not seem to be highly valued or defended - grocery store purchase lists, music tastes, web site visit s- so long as the utilization of that information doesn't fall into one of the categories above. It's routinely traded away for everything from modest discounts to suggestions of interesting books or new artists.
If I'm close to right on this, there are pitfalls ahead for all of the zealots. The privacy hardliners and techno-purists are solving problems that a large part of the market doesn't think they have (item 5). On the other hand, the marketing enthusiasts may take that same acquiescence as a go-ahead for projects that will run straight into issues 2 - 4, and be surprised by the blowback.
As noted in my last few posts, Seth Goldstein, Steve Gillmor and a number of other folks have launched AttentionTrust, a tremendously important work-in-progress whose goal is to "promote the basic rights of attention owners," i.e. all of us. Yesterday Seth posted what you might call an Attention Manifesto:
Attention is the substance of focus. It registers your interests by indicating choice for certain things and choice against other things. As Steve reminds, the establishment of value in the attention economy is a dual register of what one pays attention to and what one chooses to ignore (or unsubscribe, turn off or tune out).
The reason attention is becoming more important now is that the Internet has enabled the recording and sharing of these choices in real-time. The massively parallel synthesis of meta data streams has concentrated enormous influence in people and their sites. Some consumers are proactive in gaining full control over their influence, but the majority are passive users of free services and offers (that actively capture and sell their intentions)...
Our attention data is ours, each of us individually. In the wake of the behavior of credit card companies, credit unions and data brokers, it is vital that we recognize our right, and our responsibility, to govern ourselves relative to the use of our private information... Our attention establishes intention; and our intention establishes economic value. Once one recognizes the value of one's attention, it is shocking to see how cheaply most people offer theirs to companies looking for their business.
But it's not just (or even primarily) about realizing economic value or preventing exploitation--it's also about preserving and improving our quality of life. As noted in my last post, we're all struggling to stretch our finite amount of attention to keep up with the ever-increasing numbers of people and things demanding a share of it. This is a particularly acute problem online. The web has dramatically expanded the range of interesting things we could be paying attention to, just as it's dramatically expanded the range of things we're not interested in that have nevertheless found a way to steal a few precious moments of our attention.
To avoid drowning in an ocean of irrelevancy, we must become aware of the value of our attention, and we must spend it wisely, in accord with our own desires, not merely the desires of those entities who have managed to find (or buy) their way onto our screens or into our inboxes. I think the establishment of AttentionTrust is a significant step in that direction.
David Coleman posted at Corante yesterday on Too Much Collaboration, describing the toll that interconnectedness (and the attendant interruptions) can take on our productivity, especially when it comes to creative tasks. Coleman describes the problem as "attention management," and the obvious dilemma is that we have only a finite amount of attention to pay to the ever-increasing demands on out time. One of his proposed solutions is create the equivalent of more attention via virtual cloning:
That is to augment a person's ability to "attend" to content and events... I believe that you will need to multiply your bandwith and attention by multiplying your self. Some type of virtual agent that not only knows where you are, what you are doing and what collaboration programs or devices you have, but it also has a subset of your personality and is assigned to deal with specific types of tasks demanding your attention.
Coleman also cites companies like Veritas that have implemented "email-free Fridays." But whether the solution is an avatar that automates the handling of low-level requests, or policies that revise cultural norms about when and how quickly we can reach each other, all these changes involve putting a higher value on our attention, and raising the threshold of urgency for anything or anyone that's seeking to claim a share of it.
I've been paying closer, uh, attention to this issue as the result of some discussions with the folks working on AttentionTrust (more on that shortly), and I'm convinced that they're on to something tremendously important.
Outfoxed is a Firefox extension that allows you to rate websites (thumbs up, thumbs down, or dangerous), share your ratings, and rely upon the ratings of those you know or trust. Check out my Outfoxed page: it shows that I've accepted Stan (the author of Outfoxed, a grad student in Germany) and the Outfoxed home page as "informers," i.e. people whose site recommendations I'm interested in, and it shows a list of my "reports," i.e. sites that I've issued a rating on (which at this point is simply the list of Firefox bookmarks that I allowed Outfox to import when I installed it. (It's somewhat similar to Delicious and Stumbleupon, but Stan does a better job than I could of explaining why Outfoxed is better.)
Applications like Outfoxed that run on social metadata, i.e. information about our preferences and habits that we share with others--Audioscrobbler is another example I wrote about recently--are going to have an enormous effect on the way not only on how we use the web, but also on how we connect with other people and how we make ourselves known to them.
Today in some circles it's seen as odd if you're not actively blogging, because that's simply how you engage the community--you present your ideas, comment and expand upon others' ideas, all on a platform that's discoverable, searchable, archivable and linkable. You make yourself known and you participate in a community through your posts and comments--your data.
What if your social metadata could have a similar impact? What if it could be used to make yourself known and visible to a larger community? OTOH, metadata's not as rich as data--voting thumbs up or thumbs down on a site is a shallow substitute for a lengthier blog post explaining that vote. But OTOH, metadata's much richer than data, because there's so much of it and more is piling up every second you're online--the challenge is finding the appropriate mechanisms to capture, measure and analyze that metadata in order to extract meaning (and value) from it.
Dr. Randal Pinkett stands out in a crowd. Literally--he must be 6' 6" or something--but also figuratively; he's the President and CEO of a company he founded, BCT Partners, he holds five academic degrees from places like Oxford and MIT, and while he could probably name his price if he were working in the private sector, he's chosen to work primarily with nonprofits and other public institutions, helping them with management, technology and policy issues.
And for such a big shot, he's a really nice guy, too. So it was great to hear from him on just how you wind up with that many diplomas, technology in the social services, the Ars Portalis project, and track and field...
Michael Stein is the Media and Communications Strategist at GetActive Software, but that's just the latest hat he's wearing in a long career in the nonprofit technology field. He's also been Associate Director at Groundspring and co-author of three books (including The eNonprofit: A Guide to ASPs, Internet Services and Online Software, and Fundraising on the Internet: Recruiting and Renewing Donors Online), as well as an independent consultant.
I've worked alongside Michael in the nonprofit technology field for more than four years, and I've always appreciated his insights. Today's no exception as he tackles personal blogging, blogging for a company, wearing different hats, and Bay Area surfing spots...
Tim Oren is a Managing Director at Pacifica Fund, a venture capital firm, and a regular blogger at Due Diligence. That combination alone makes him an interesting guy, but I've particularly enjoyed his thoughtful writing and no-BS attitude. ("Addicted to Buzz?" on the tech industry's use and abuse of buzzwords is an outstanding example.) Many thanks to Tim for taking the time to address three questions on VC blogging, startup blogging, and John Markoff's "What the Dormouse Said"...
Suw Charman is a consultant, journalist and author whose work focuses on blogging and social software. She writes Strange Attractor for Corante, and maintains a personal blog at Chocolate and Vodka, among other projects. She was also one of the 50 Honorable Mentions added to the AO/Technorati Open Media Top 100--I've expressed some skepticism about that list, but IMO Suw deserves the recognition. I'm very grateful for her outstanding responses to my three questions, which focus on microformats, organizational "unclenching," and Internet Relay Chat...