by: Jonathan Salem Baskin

Yahoo's new limits on user data retention and Facebook's latest row over faux college groups illustrate the bizzaro-world conflict between too little and too much information in search, social media, and online life in general.

Why is it that companies know too much about us, and we know too little about one another? Shouldn't it be the other way around?

Yahoo is going to delete after 90 days some of the personally identifiable search behavior data it collects. These are the breadcrumb trails that we all leave when we look something up on the web, and the standard is to hold onto the stuff for at least a year or so...because it's commercial gold: by tracking and correlating the queries you type into your computer, companies like Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo can extrapolate tons of conclusions about your lifestyle, and your interests. 

This allows them to sell access to your eyeballs to companies that might sell you stuff that you might want. So two people entering in the search term "tuna fish" might get two different sets of paid results, depending on how the engines have predicted the likelihood of one commercial interest exploiting your interest vs. another. We get sold every step of the way.

It's called providing a better search experience.

Conversely, the latest row on Facebook involves a company setting up faux college group pages, with the intention of capturing names for some similarly nefarious (i.e. commercial) purpose.

The rise of social media has been driven by people interacting with one another based on at least some shared tidbit of information (interest, gender, topic, education, etc.), yet little of it is certified as authentic. We interact with one another online almost wholly as anonymous trollers, identifiable only by the stuff we choose to share. While a search engine can map your behavior with near-actuarial certainty, I know nothing about you when we "meet" online.

Detached from the responsibility of identity, participants in social media can be whomever (or whatever) they want to be. So can companies, which continually try to exploit the medium with faux indviduals (that person in a user forum who won't stop waxing poetic about  the virtues of Microsoft Vista is probably a paid agent) and pages/groups.

The common retort of the word-of-mouth community is that the crowd will eventually out the violators, whether individual participants or entire groups (as in the case of the latest Facebook heresy). I'll eventually discover that you're not who you say you are, or that the community I've joined is a scam. There are no secrets, ultimately, on the Internet.

So true. But it begs a central question: whom, where, and when do you trust?

For all of the vast, interconnected enormity of the Internet, it comes down to two extremes, in my thinking:

  1. You either build very closed communities, in which you can certify that the members are really who they say they are (and are there for the reasons they've revealed), or
  2. You outsource your trust to the most authentically anonymous crowds possible (that, by definition, are too generic to have any POV or bias to manipulate you, or if one emerged, you'd know it)

I'd put the big search engines and many online social groups somewhere between, and I'm not sure it's a sustainable place to be. I wonder if people are going to trend to the extremes of the experience continuum. If so, while it's great that search engines like Yahoo promise to limit data exploitation, and that faux communities or individuals will ultimately get outed, it might not be enough.

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