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Privacy and the Web's 'signal-to-noise ratio'

Mark Milian
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Tila Tequila fights for her privacy
  • Social-networking companies are struggling to make sense of the deluge of data online
  • Some social media companies are finding that oversharing hurts the overall experience
  • If people online only share worthwhile info, these services might be more useful

Editor's Note: This is part of CNN's "End of Privacy" series. Join the conversation on Twitter by following @cnntech and #endofprivacy.

(CNN) -- At the dawn of the internet era, the priority was to figure out how to let more people access the world's information.

Today, the question seems to be how to distill oceans of content into manageable streams and discard the rest: the meandering blog posts, the useless status updates, the trivial tweets.

The explosion of blogs, Facebook and Twitter have inspired millions to share personal details with the world, a cultural trend that was first officially recognized in 2008 when Webster's New World Dictionary declared "overshare" the word of the year.

Complaints about friends' tweeting what they had for lunch have practically become a national pastime. And yet, we keep on sharing.

Even so, there's evidence that mounting privacy concerns have led people to be more careful about what they post online and who they choose to share it with.

Take reality TV star Miss Tila -- also known as Tila Tequila -- not known for being bashful in her embrace of social media. Earlier this year she disabled her Twitter account over some nasty user comments and, after a break, launched a new Twitter feed that has fewer followers.

In several of her recent tweets, she pleaded with fans to respect her privacy.

"I've learned my lesson," she told CNN in an interview last week. "Before I put anything up there [on the internet], I definitely make sure that it's, you know, that it's safe."

Twitter changed the question it poses at the top of every user's home page last year from "What are you doing?" to "What's happening?" The old question encouraged mundane answers like what type of coffee someone is sipping on, co-founder Biz Stone said then in a statement.

"A lot of the tools that are out there weren't really designed for a world of endless information," Stone said recently. "How do we become an antidote to information overload, as opposed to yet another service that just bombards people with information?"

Google's official mission statement reads: "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." But the search giant found itself sprinting to keep up after the explosion of Twitter and is still unable to index most information stored on Facebook because large amounts of data are set to private.

In fact, few companies are sufficiently equipped to handle the deluge of data that Web surfers are eager to feed them.


Facebook, in partnership with Microsoft's Bing, is making strides in letting people search through the mountains of information stored on its servers.

The Palo Alto, California, company runs the world's largest social network, with more than 500 million people. It launched various features this year to make more information public -- such as the Places section for location sharing and mechanisms for organizing personal activity on other sites.

Managing all of this data is surely a challenge for Facebook as a company. But for users, keeping up with all of the status changes, comments and photo albums begging to be "Liked" is impossible.

"I get too much Facebook mail and questions," said Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, who helped spark the personal computing revolution. "Social media? I don't have time."

Every person has a unique thought about where to draw the line on what constitutes oversharing. That's clear by the groups of Facebook users that inevitably protest whenever the company makes changes to coax people to reveal more of their memories and interests to the Web.

But even Facebook has limits on what you can share. The company doesn't allow certain types of hate speech, especially relating to religion, nor will it house racy photos. Facebook employs more than a hundred moderators worldwide to crack down on certain types of posts.

'Passive data'

Similarly, Chatroulette, which gained notoriety for letting strangers connect for live video chats, is developing technology and policies for stopping people from exposing their genitals on the site.

Many social networks have declared that certain types of information is off limits. But some are coming to the realization that too much information is simply bad for everyone.

Blippy started out a year ago as a site for sharing credit card purchases. People were encouraged to sign up for a profile and connect it to their credit card accounts so that receipts would automatically be published as status updates. The idea was that people might be curious about what their friends were buying and how much they paid.

But the Palo Alto, California, company has learned that too much info, and making it too easy to post that data, can harm the utility of the service. So a few months ago Blippy began asking users to approve each item before posting and then write a brief review.

"The biggest risk when people publish everything turns out not to be that people publish personal stuff, but that they publish too many uninteresting things," said Blippy President Philip Kaplan. "The most interesting content on the site was not just that they bought it, but what they thought of it."

The founding philosophy assumed that "if everybody was sharing everything that they buy," Kaplan said, "the site would move a lot faster." As it turned out, things moved quickly into the mud.

After Blippy's change, Kaplan says the site is more useful, tracking $500,000 worth of purchases a day. It has mostly cut out what Kaplan calls "passive data" -- that is, the info that's published automatically, providing no incentive for the user to return to the site.

Oversharing on Foursquare

The internet is host to countless social networks targeting some very specific topics, and many of them rely on so-called passive data.

For music, automatically posts a profile update for each song its users play in a digital jukebox like iTunes. And Apple launched its own social network for music, called Ping, which is a mix of active and passive data; for the latter, it posts a new status each time a user purchases something from the iTunes Store. A million people signed up for Ping in the first two days after it launched.

For health junkies, a data-tracking and social service from Fitbit tallies exercise habits using a small gizmo.

Gowalla is a location-based social network -- similar to Facebook Places and Foursquare -- that relies on the active participation of "checking in." Like Blippy, Gowalla encourages people not to use its service for trivial events.

This distinction is important for Gowalla because CEO Josh Williams says he's weary of using computer-driven inference to try to determine what it should show users, in the way Google's search engine and Facebook's News Feed do.

"I think we want to be careful about algorithmically controlling what we display," Williams said. "I would encourage people to check in to places that are important to them. For us, we're not going to be the ones to decide what somebody thinks is important."

Foursquare takes a similar approach and displays everything, rather than trying to pick out what's most important. The service will shame users who check in too often by branding their page with an "Overshare" badge, which is earned after checking in at least 10 times in 12 hours. More than 391,000 people have unlocked that badge, a company spokeswoman said.

Speaking of oversharing, you can also earn a Foursquare badge called GYT -- short for "Get Yourself Tested" -- when you check in to a clinic and get tested for sexually transmitted diseases; the program is courtesy of MTV. Foursquare says 4,807 people have earned this badge.

Signal-to-noise ratio

As the internet generation has shown, leaving it up to users to determine what should be shared is not always a solution. Then again, silencing oversharers is one "de-friend" button click away on most sites.

"You have to worry about the signal-to-noise ratio," Williams said.

Flipboard, which Apple declared the app of the year for iPad, attempts to solve the problem with software that organizes your Twitter and Facebook friends' updates into a magazine-like format.

"There's too much stuff to check" on unfiltered social networks, Flipboard CEO Mike McCue said at a conference recently. "By the time you get done going through the last social network, you kind of have to go back to the first one."

For narrowing which updates you share to closer circles of friends, there's Diaspora or Path. The latter was founded by a former Facebook engineer, but unlike the world's largest social network, Path limits a user to 50 friends.

The social-media juggernaut, Facebook, faces perhaps the biggest challenge in solving the noise problem.

More specialized social networks, which encourage in-depth conversation around certain topics, are tying into Facebook. So the library of book reviews you thought were only meant for your GoodReads page might show up on your Facebook profile.

REMcloud, founded by Kim Muhota several months ago, is among the most peculiar of the themed social-networks. The service facilitates the sharing and discussion of dreams. "Thousands" of people have signed up, he said, sharing intimate and sometimes sexual nighttime visions.

"Why do people care about my status update on Facebook or my tweet?" Muhota asked rhetorically. "I think there's this innate, human, primal desire to share your experiences with others. There just is."

As we are learning, however, it may not be in our DNA to want to hear about every one of those experiences.


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