Care to share your credit card statement?
Not that long ago, it was awkward, and even inappropriate, to share your personal business with the world. Relationship woes, resumes, credit card statements -- they were all considered "private."
But now, users are broadcasting these things -- and much more -- to the whole world, on websites like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, MySpace, and Yelp...and the list keeps growing.
And, even as these social media giants are landing in court and doling out millions of dollars in settlements, new companies continue to push the privacy envelope. KALW's Martina Castro reports on how the're trying to capitalize on this cultural trend.
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STEPHEN COLBERT: Let's see, someone named ‘hershenroader’ spent $10.94 at Wendy’s. Scott Elkin spent $7.68 at Panda Express. Wow, this is more exciting than going through old receipts—it’s going through new receipts!
COLBERT: Blippy.com, a revolutionary new site which lets you register your credit card online, then every purchase you make is automatically posted on Blippy!
That’s not a joke. Blippy, which launched in January, is the latest in a slew of startups trying to fulfill people's growing desire to share information on the internet – and to make money off of it. Sound invasive? Well, Blippy co-founder Phillip Kaplan doesn't understand what all the fuss is about.
PHILLIP KAPLAN: Corporations have had access to this data forever and they have been using it for all kids of different purposes.
It's true, those ads that come with your American Express statement, the coupons you get when you use your Safeway club card, those are just a few examples of how businesses are using information about your purhcases to target ads to you.
KAPLAN: What's really cool about Blippy is that it’s the first time that regular consumers like you and me can use this information.
So, what's in it for you and me? Well, Kaplan says it facilitates conversation around things lots of us like to show off anyway. He says it's just a matter of getting used to the idea:
KAPLAN: You know, when I was growing up, I was taught to not tell anybody that I was going out of town, because then someone could rob our house or whatever. So we had our neighbors pick up our mail, and we had timers that would turn the lights on and off inside the house. But today everybody tweets, “I’m at the airport, I'm on vacation! I’m at this conference! I’m doing this thing! I'm at work! I’m not at home!” People are happy to share things if they get a benefit out of it.
It's too soon to know if people will get enough benefit from using Blippy to make the company profitable, but Kaplan and all of his investors are betting people will come around.
When Kaplan reads to me from his own Blippy feed...
KAPLAN: $19.70 at Szechuan Café…$3.69 at Country Sun…
It seems innocuous enough. But when you hear someone else read it…
RYAN CALO: He spent $8.94 at McDonald’s--he eats a lot of fast food it looks like to me. Oh, and there's Whole Foods, I’m going to guess that he's a Democrat!
Then you get an idea of what these purchases might say about you.
CALO: My name is Ryan Calo, and I'm a residential fellow at the Center for Internet and Society.
Calo says information that seems benign can get you into trouble.
CALO: There are countless examples of many different kinds of authorities using social networks in order to draw conclusions and sometimes to take adverse action.
Calo knows of cases in which school principals, employers, and law enforcement have used information from social networks against someone. And, of course, crooks can use that information to steal your identity. But what's possibly worse, Calo says, is that we don't really know how most of that information is being used.
CALO: What I lament about people living in public as much as they do is that we don’t appreciate the consequences of that, because we can’t even understand the many possible uses of our information.
LARRY DOWNES: Well, you know, I’m all for consentual, adult sharing of information. I think that's great.
Larry Downes is the author of Laws of Disruption: Harnessing the New Forces That Govern Business and Life in the Digital Age. He sees two forces in American culture that are coming head to head in these discussions about privacy.
DOWNES: We were founded by people who wanted to get away from government and wanted to get away from institutions that were suppressing them, so we have a sort of individualistic culture, and that leads us to be very protective of our privacy on the one hand. On the other hand, we have this idea of the free market, of capitalism, and of government not interfering with our commercial activities.
Downes acknowledges that as companies test the waters, there will be bumps in the road, as there were with Google and Facebook. But Downes says regulation is not the way to keep the information marketplace from going too far.
DOWNES: The general rule we’ve got under a capitalist system is that markets regulate themselves, and we know of course they don’t always do a perfect job, and we know of lots of places where they are broken and where it is appropriate for government to intervene. But the general rule is they will do a more efficient job of regulating themselves than the cost of external regulation.
And sharing personal information online is not just serving the private sector.
Bret Waters is the CEO and founder of Tivix, a startup that helps non-profits fundraise and recruit through social media. One of their Facebook apps is called Shop4Good – it connects users to shops that will donate a percentage of their purchases back to the organization of their choice.
BRET WATERS: So I like to talk about this as the intersection between cause and commerce. That you know, we are all out there being consumers and spending money, and any store or brand is willing to pay a percentage in order to get an incremental sale, so if that exists, why not divert it to a good cause?
A recent study by the market research firm Morpace, indicates Tivix is on the right track. Of those surveyed, almost 70% of consumers with Facebook accounts said they would be more likely to buy from a retailer if they got a referral from a Facebook friend. And over a third said the site is a good tool for researching products.
But the more companies try to carve out their slice of the social media pie, the harder Waters thinks it will be for everyone to find a niche.
WATERS: Honestly I think one of the challenges in social media today is that it has become so big and the participants are so active, that the amount of sort of white noise in social media today is pretty big. So finding a way that you can cut through that noise, improve your organization's signal to noise ratio, if you will, I think is more challenging than ever before today.
Maybe the organizations we end up noticing will be the ones that make the most noise, or maybe they'll just become fodder for Stephen Colbert as they struggle to establish their identity.
COLBERT: …or, better yet, folks, we can combine them all into one site called “Nome,” which records every interaction, every movement of every person on earth, and posts them online like a storm of random data points, that shouts out to the blind, indifferent universe, "We exist! We exist! Please! Please! Let this mean something!"
For Crosscurrents, I'm Martina Castro.