Esther Dyson has some words of caution about this emerging field:
There’s a real danger that the whole field and its potential for supporting human connections could be irretrievably tarnished by privacy issues — either as a result of policies that leave people feeling exposed by the aggregation of data, or by security breakdowns, resulting in some kind of informational oil spill.
For now, no one online social network has enough heft to matter. But these issues will inevitably arise when the services approach critical mass. Consider the undercurrents of discomfort already swirling around Google because it is perceived to control the content we see. Imagine a service that controls information about people, even if it only runs algorithms.
These systems are collecting personal data with relatively simple who-knows-whom links — but even that is not so simple: Who is not acknowledged by whom? Who is the best networker? Who refers turkeys? Who has long-term relationships, and who can’t keep his friends? Moreover, the issue is not just explicit entries in a contact database. The data includes frequency of contact, who replies to whom and how promptly, who is bcc’ed and so on.
Beyond that, there are services that assemble other types of information, such as its members’ uploaded files and published articles, to create what vendor Spoke Software blandly calls “dossiers.” The data in the dossiers isn’t sold, but it is used to derive information about connections, which is sold.
At the end of the day we will have private aggregations of data more rich and interconnected and personal than any government ever dreamed of … and of course this data will be readily available, just as data from credit card companies, merchants and airlines is today.
Finally, I have to ask what these tools do to the old, low-tech concept of friendship. In some way, with their numbers and lists and classifications, these services can subtly make a social network into a trophy collection. Technology has made it easier than ever to count your friends — but that doesn’t mean you should.