Tracking Information Workers For Their Own Good

December 6, 2007 at 4:15 pm | Posted in 1652, Attention Management, collaboration, Web 2.0 | 1 Comment

I talked to the folks at Eluma today and got into an interesting discussion about how much people (enterprise information workers was the immediate concern) want their activities tracked and how much to let them know what is being tracked. Eluma is a web organizer (place to categorize and store the stuff you find on the web) with some social software capabilities underneath.  The conversation was around “Are people scared of all the things your computer keeps track of on you?  Should a product leverage tracking information to help a user find relevant information and, if so, how do you word that so it doesn’t sound like an invasion of privacy?”

This was a timely discussion for me since just yesterday I wrote a posting on Could Attention Data Become a Record? that introduced a fantasy scenario where a corporate executive insisting on innocence about malfeasance on his watch could be undone by all the tracking and attention data on his PC. 

There’s no doubt that privacy and web tracking are issues getting a lot of attention these days.  It’s fair to say the majority of my readers are not embezzling millions of dollars and trying to deny knowledge of the situation, but even us law-abiding folks don’t feel right about being tracked – particularly if we haven’t been told and don’t see the value ourselves.

If you want to see how concerns about web tracking are on the front burner just open up today’s Wall St. Journal.  On the front page of the Marketplace section (page B1) is an article called Watching What You See on the Web which describes how NebuAd helps an ISP to do “deep-packet inspection” by looking inside the packets sent by the user and selling an aggregate view of the user to advertisers who will target messages based upon the profile. 

Then turn a few pages and on page B4 you see an article called Facebook Rethinks Tracking which describes how Mark Zuckerberg has apologized about their Beacon program which enabled friends to get messages based on their web activity.

Personally, my focus is on enterprise information workers.  Accordingly, my interest is more in how tracking information and attention data can be used to help information workers to pull information that may be of interest closer to their focus and push other information further back.  To me, I think the keys to using tracking information for the benefit of information workers are:

  • Being very clear about what’s being tracked
  • Allowing opt-in or out of what’s tracked. As Evan Schuman of eWeek wrote “a little more selling of the benefits and permission-getting might have made a world of difference.”
  • Breaking open the “black box” (like a spam filter lets you check what it’s blocking) to check what it’s deciding

There is a line beyond which web users do not want to be tracked and the industry and users are feeling out where that line is drawn. As .com companies like Facebook try to cash in on their place as the center of conversations to monetize that stream, we’re going to see more companies stepping over that line through carelessness or to test the waters.  Will that line be tested and pushed back over time as other etiquette/decency issues like violence and suggestive behavior on TV shows has been?  Or will laws be enacting that equate deep packet inspection with wiretapping over the phone?

What is certain is that Google’s success at monetizing its attention stream has launched a gold rush.  Investors are demanding a payday from social sites that have succeeded in becoming free hubs for facilitating the buzz of blog postings, ratings, bookmarks, and music preferences.  And advertisers are proving willing to at least test the waters by showing up at the front door of these companies with bags of cash to get at the tracking data.  There aren’t too many companies out there like Craigslist that can resist this kind of temptation.

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1 Comment »

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  1. Hi Craig,

    You are right. The questions around privacy are definitely front and center these days, and providers must respect their users’ privacy. That is exactly why we’ve drawn a bold line in our product:

    • For those users that want everything they do to be completely private, it is.
    • For those users that want to share their collections of content with a small group, or with the entire population of users, they can.
    • For those users that want interesting content presented to them based on collaborative filtering, like Pandora does, we let them tell us what they like, and we’ll present them with recommendations.

    We are strong believers in respecting privacy Some people will want to give up a bit of privacy for the personalized recommendations they get in return, and others won’t. We cater to both groups.

    Thanks!

    Richard Buck
    CEO, Eluma


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