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.