Friday, March 28, 2008

Spock.com Review: No, it's just creepy.


I recently came across a new search and networking site, spock.com, that's getting some buzz. Right off the bat, let me say that the way I discovered it creeped me out. I noticed that my youtube video of the bigwheel race was linked to by a stranger's myspace and was the video of the day on the Boston Fox affiliate. Curious about who else might be mentioning me, I googled myself and found a link to a whole page dedicated to me on spock.com, with a picture, info about my likes and dislikes, pictures of my friends, links to my wikipedia contributions, teaching portfolio, youtube videos etc. I had no idea this page existed. I certainly didn't create it...

The biggest difficulty in starting a social networking site is that for it to be useful, it has to reach a certain critical mass. On one hand it's easier for new sites to reach this point than it was in the days of sixdegrees and friendster, because people understand the concept and see the value. On the other hand, the market is crowded now and you need to be offering something exceptional to generate new registrations.

Spock.com gets around this problem by creating a critical mass of usefulness without needing anybody to sign up. By combing other social networking sites and the internet at large, spock.com has created millions of profiles of people who aren't even aware the site exists. And since their userbase is potential employers and stalkers as much as the people being profiled--they bill themselves as a "people search engine"--it's already useful to at least the first segment of their users, the people who are searching. The question is how the site deals with the second group, the people who are profiled. That's where it gets troubling.

What's powerful about this site is that it figures out that info from multiple sources is all about the same person and puts it in one profile. They are far from perfecting this though, so there are a couple less-complete profiles for me, and my main profile has a link to information about when I was picked by the Detroit Red Wings in the 1983 NHL draft. Even if you don't know me, you can figure out that that isn't the same Craig Butz. But did you know I have a Ph.D. in education and have been the director of a charter school in Las Vegas?

Because a profile isn't just a random list of links like a Google search, it becomes more likely that users will believe inaccurate information they see on spock.com. Grouping the information into profiles inherently makes a claim that it's all about one person, otherwise what would be the point of the service? When most of the information is accurate, it adds to the credibility of the page as a whole. Because the whole page is credible, it's easier to assume that individual facts are--a psychological effect called "credibility by association."

The fact that all of the information they cull is "already out there," stuff that would show up in a google search anyway, is little consolation when you examine the details. While I've published all kinds information about myself, and have always realized that you can piece it together if you want to, I expect some control over its context. If I check a box saying I'm single, I know I'm putting that bit of info on my myspace page, not my teaching portfolio. If an employer or potential client does go snooping on myspace or facebook, they know from the context that they're looking into my personal life, and I expect them to have different expectations about what they find than for my professional actions. When it's all lumped together by spock.com, you lose the ability to make those distinctions for the people you interact with. You no longer get to have a professional life distinct from your personal life. Teenagers figuring out who they are, trying on identities, can no longer have a home-self distinct from their school-self, a version of themselves that they present to friends in person that's different from the one they reveal to people they've met online. Maybe someday such different selves will seem old-fashioned, but I think most people today expect to be able to present themselves differently in different contexts. A tool that undermines that ability isn't good for most people.

When I emailed my concerns, spock.com's answer was for me to register with the site. There are two problems with this solution. First, most of the people profiled don't know their profile exists. Second, even if you register (giving tacit approval to the contents of your profile) you aren't actually allowed to delete inaccurate information, or stuff you just don't want included. You can only "vote down any incorrect information." What's reported about you is determined democratically! How can democracy be bad?

Even if we were to accept that what's public in one context should be public in all, the model assumes that the information about you is still coming from you or from credible and well-intentioned sources. Unfortunately, anything written about you on the Internet by anyone is fair game for inclusion. In fact, if the bots are doing what they're meant to, it's inevitable. There are already horror stories. Wired reports on a blogger covering the Mark Foley scandel being automatically tagged a pedophile. In the comments to another article about the site, a high school teacher complains that an angry student created a spoof myspace profile about him. While he was able to get myspace to remove it, the bogus information had already made it into his spock profile. Imagine the potential for a kid to be bullied relentlessly through this site. Since it's an information popularity contest, they would have little power to stop the terrible things that kids say from being included on their own profile page.

Spock.com isn't the only site that has to deal with vandalism. But it's one thing for wikipedia to grapple with it when their notability rule disallows articles about most of us. The potential consequences aren't much more severe than some kid including the wrong dates for the Civil War in a report. When the entire content of the site is real living people, the company is risking people's reputations in a way that could seriously damage their lives.

If you have an internet presence, they're compiling a profile on you whether you like it or not. In response to my request to have my profile removed, the Spock Team said, "If I were to remove your Spock search result you will eventually be reindexed." The only way to influence your profile is to register. What an incredibly coercive business model! The draw for registered users is to gain some influence over a profile that will exist whether they want it to or not. Unfortunately, this aspect is unlikely to change. For the service to be useful, they need to rope people into registering. While they're doing a better job than most of attaching information to the right person, it's unlikely they will ever be able to automate the process perfectly. Ultimately, I'm the only machine that can tell whether a page is about me or not.

If I don't want there to be a page about me at all, there is an alternative. They told another peeved profilee that she could be permanently deleted by completely removing herself from all social networking sites. They've decided that you don't get to choose whether or not to be a part of spock.com. The only way not to be profiled is not to allow any mention of yourself on the internet.

It is true that other sites, like zoominfo are doing similar things, but none in such an intrusive way. Spock Networks apparently thinks of this as being more successful.

Many people certainly do want tools to check up on those around them, and Jay Bhatti and Jaideep Singh hope to profit off that craving, whether it's wise to feed it or not. The question, I guess, is whether they'll put their energy into building safeguards against the blatant potential for their site to be abused, something which will be technically difficult and likely to decrease the site's usefulness as a search tool, or whether they'll stay on track to develop it into the best privacy-invading search tool in existence.

9 comments:

Patrick said...

Craig,
Thanks for the write up on Spock. I thought it was very insightful and brought up some great points. I did want to clarify a few things from the post (granted as a Spock employee I am admittedly biased).

It's important to understand that Spock uses the same techniques and process as Google, Yahoo, or any other search engine. While our information may be a little bit more specific about a person, it's none the less information that in all cases was publicly available at the time it was indexed. Because of that fact, our process isn't 100% accurate, so if you list yourself as the guitar player for U2 on your Myspace Page, Spock has no way to decipher whether that's true or not. Spock's goal was to create a site that makes searching for people easier, and as with any other site any information needs to be taken with a grain of salt. That’s not to say that none of our information is true, but if you use common sense you can generally figure out what’s true or not.

1) With regards to the extra links on your search result that your mentioned, you may have been referring to the section labeled "additional links". These are merely suggested additional links that may or may not be associated with you. So rather than making a user enter his or her additional web links, Spock shows you results that could be associated with you. These are divided by a line on a search result and if you look at the specific web links view, the additional results aren't displayed.

2) While you are correct that people usually have multiple profiles throughout the web, it's important for a user to be responsible for what they post and to explore security settings. As you mentioned, 'I…have always realized that you can piece it together if you want to'. Therefore I think hypocritical to blame Spock for posting it in an easy to see format. If you don't want people to see your Facebook profile, or blog, then it’s important for the user to make it private.

3) You mentioned that there is a possibility for abuse. At Spock we allow you to claim your search result and vote down, or flag irrelevant information. Therefore you do technically have some control over your result (significantly more control than being on any other search engine). As far as incorrect information as referenced with the Wired Article, you could also look at it as being a relevant association in the fact that the blogger did write about a pedophile. So while it didn’t say ‘blogger who wrote about a pedophile’ as it probably should have, it did create a relevant association. In cases of fraud, as with the high school teacher issue, Spock takes cases of fraud seriously and deletes results in such cases.

4) In your reference to the e-mail (which you quoted out of context) what I was referring to was the fact that you had a Myspace profile which will always have public information. I was merely warning you that if you delete your Spock search result (with a Myspace source of information), it will eventually be reindexed. The reason why we encourage people to claim their search result is because we lack the man power to individually review every deletion request in a timely manner, and to make sure who are who you claim to be. After all, who am I to say that you are the real Craig Butz from San Francisco without you verifying it with your Myspace credentials?

Providing login credentials is just one of the ways that Spock prevents abuse. Other tools we have are flagging, the fact that everything on Spock can be voted on and an extensive black list of terms that cannot be entered on Spock. Also, all users are notified of any changes to their Spock search result. We’re certainly not perfect but I think that Spock does a better job than most other sites.

Anyway I apologize for the long winded response. Please feel free to e-mail me if you have any other questions or issues (Patrick@corp.spock.com).

Fragmentadora de Papel said...
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Kagahn said...
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Zololkis said...
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Anonymous. Keep it that way. said...

Good post. I found your blog on Google (yes, Spock—*Google*) while looking for tips on how to delete my information from my oh-so-helpfully-generated-without-my-knowledge-or-consent Spock page. I'd like to respond to patrick's comment:

"...I think hypocritical to blame Spock for posting it in an easy to see format."

...patrick, in my opinion he wasn't blaming Spock for posting it in an "easy to see format". He was blaming Spock for posting it. Period.

"Providing login credentials is just one of the ways that Spock prevents abuse."

...Never mind that indexing cached information, providing minimal support for victims of Spock, and forcing people to sign up for their site in order to get *off* it can be construed as abuse, too.

"Other tools we have are flagging, the fact that everything on Spock can be voted on and an extensive black list of terms that cannot be entered on Spock."

...Unless Spock has buried it somewhere inconspicuous on their site, you have to be a registered user to flag. Again, most people are not interested in becoming registered users.

Finally:

"We’re certainly not perfect but I think that Spock does a better job than most other sites."

...It's great you think so. Maybe now Spock can work on what most other sites do better: Asking users before making them users.

SC said...

C-- This is creepy as fuck. No doubt about it.

Anonymous said...
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Craig said...

Spock.com is now http://search.intelius.com/

Craig said...

Spock.com is now http://www.zabasearch.com/