The Unintentional Narcissism of Plaxo

Plaxo is beginning to irritate people again. Now it’s David Weinberger, who is back to hating Plaxo:

Today I hate it again. I got an update notice from someone and noticed that my own info was out of date. So I took the seemingly innocuous step of updating my phone number.

Lo and behold, Plaxo apparently took that as a command to send mail to everyone in my address book (actually, I don’t know whose address book) that I have new info that they simply must attend to. I am, I seem, an inadvertent Plaxo spammer and unintentional narcissist.

What’s interesting here is the thread that follows: The tireless Stacy Martin, Plaxo’s privacy officer, jumps into the fray to try to explain what has happened. I don’t envy Stacy’s job: While Plaxo may not mean to be intrusive, and in David’s case didn’t behave quite as badly as he’d originally suspected, it clearly hasn’t fully addressed the issues that were irritating users two years ago.

The crucial thing here, I think, is not so much privacy of data as giving the user full control over how they present themselves to others. I get several requests from Plaxo users every month, and I ignore all of them. But how many of those requests are sent with the full knowledge and understanding of the user? Not many, I suspect. These folk’s public image — how they appear to all their contacts — is being largely determined by a piece of software.

Pretty much everyone is going to have in their contact database a range of folk from close friends to important sources you’re careful not to overburden with casual contact. What you don’t want a contact updater to be doing is to start sending out emails on your behalf without you being in full and easily comprehensible control. If someone like David can’t figure out the process and ends up feeling like an “unintentional narcissist”, what chance do the rest of us have?

04. November 2005 by jeremy
Categories: Privacy, Software, apps | Tags: , , , , | 3 comments

Comments (3)

  1. Good to hear from you again, Jeremy. I’ve enjoyed reading about your tech-musing from time to time.

    I think David’s situation is slightly different than what you are describing, but I hear what you are saying. Since Plaxo does not automatically send emails to non-members (perhaps unlike other services), I suspect the members sending you those requests you receive every month are doing so knowingly.

    Admittedly, we still have people who send messages to causual contacts who exist in their address book, and I suspect this will always be an issue to some degree. But we’ve done a number of things to improve things including removing the “send to entire address book” option, publishing and educating members about proper Plaxo Etiquette (http://www.plaxo.com/privacy/manners ) and making it very clear in our Terms of Service that unauthorized usage of Plaxo includes “sending messages to people you do not know, or whom are unlikely to recognize you”.

    David’s situation is slightly different because it is not related to him sending email to his contacts (as he initially thought). Unfortunately, he wasn’t aware of what would occur when he updated his Plaxo cards (http://blog.plaxo.com/archives/000056.html ). Plaxo updated the address books of other Plaxo members who were connected to David. Those members were then notified of the action through a Plaxo email alert. Plaxo only updated and alerted those other Plaxo members he had allowed to connect to him based on his Privacy settings.

    Regardless, it’s clear that David would prefer to have even greater control over when and how other members get updated when he updates his Plaxo card information. That he would prefer Plaxo not updated the address books of connected members, unless he explicitly allows the update to occur.

    While this is currently not a capability of Plaxo and slightly different from how Plaxo was initially intended, he is not alone in his sentiments and it is something we are considering.

    Stacy Martin
    Plaxo Privacy Officer
    privacy @t plaxo.com

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