For the last three Saturdays, I have been following a documentary series called The Virtual Revolution on BBC2. Seems that there will be one more episode to come, so if you are interested in social sciency discussions about the Internet, you might want to check it out. (And here is a behind-the-scene story by the presenter Dr Aleks Krotoski.)
Today’s was about the ‘free online services versus privacy’ tradeoff. Every time this topic is brought up, I have mixed feelings. As an intensive user of the Internet, I do have my concerns. At the same time, behavioural targeting was precisely what I proposed as a future form of online advertising in my master’s dissertation in 1999. Well, “personalised advertising” was the phrase I used in the title as well as the content. Google AdWord or AdSense wasn’t in the picture back then, and my idea was more of a development from Amazon’s recommendation system. Anyway, although I listed down issues such as the invasion of privacy and the elimination of serendipitous exposure to information, I guess my overall attitude was optimistic and I didn’t think those issues through. To be fair to myself, it’s not that I ignored them; I just didn’t have any concrete suggestions against them. I still don’t, but at least now I am better aware of the seriousness and complexity of this tradeoff happening on a daily basis.
Some of the things said during the series weren’t exactly news to me, but I found the timing perfect. It was aired just when Google’s new social networking tool, Buzz, “stirred up a beehive of angry critics“. A few links to note in relation to this. If you are looking for a short and clear explanation of what the problems are, Andy has offered one. If you want to disable the feature, this CNET article will be of help. In addition, here is an incident that illustrates how much of ourselves we give away when we use all those free online utilities, including search engines, most obviously. I know I can’t afford to stop using all the services I have been using, so I have to naïvely insist that awareness is the first step towards a more sophisticated use of whatever technology. <sigh>
[…] the way we represent ourselves online has devolved from the quirky, personalised HTML webpage, homepage of the 90s, to the somewhat modular but still strange presence of a MySpace page, to the completely formatted and market-friendly presence of a Facebook page. You know, what we’ve done is moved from personal, human, open-ended self-expression to completely market and computer-friendly regimented and conformist expression.