(This is a copy of my Loose Wire Sevice column, produced for newspapers and other print publications. Hence the lack of links.)
By Jeremy Wagstaff
It’s interesting to see how we’ve changed in the past few years.
If you had predicted that we could follow someone’s activities by accessing a single page, right down to where they were, what restaurant they’d visited, where they’d been on holiday, what they were reading, what they were listening to, their employment history, what had made them laugh or cry, the reaction would probably have been somewhat negative.
Back then we had a different idea of privacy.
We basically saw privacy as a garden fence. Only neighbors could look in—unless they’ve got telescopes and twitching curtains. Our privacy wasn’t exactly a massive wall, but a shared understanding that there was a kind of wicker fence, or hedge, between us and the outside world.
Nowadays—maybe five years on—our views have changed. Well, they haven’t really changed, because I don’t think we really ponder it too much. Perhaps we’ve just tacitly accepted that the garden fence no longer exists.
This is probably because the benefits of accepting this outweigh the disadvantages.
Let’s look at the first bit again. If we befriend people on Facebook, we share with them tonnes of personal information, from our birthdays to our kids’ photos to our views and thoughts on the world, revealing either directly or indirectly all sorts of things about our lives.
Two friends died recently and Facebook was the vector for not only that information but for the grieving process of all their friends and relatives.
What was private or intimate is now public or semi-public.
LinkedIn blasts our CVs out there for everyone to see. What we once treated as confidential is now public—including our yearnings for another job. If you doubt me, scroll down to the bottom of a LinkedIn page and you’ll see how many people have opted to include the line “interested in career opportunities”. I’m surprised this doesn’t put more bosses’ noses out of joint.
Then there’s twitter: Every thing we feel, think, or get irked by is out there for everyone to see.
Music sites like Last.fm and Pandora share what you’re listening to, while Google Latitude and foursquare share your location.
You can get a sense of how all this fits together—and why, perhaps, it’s not such a bad thing—when you try out services like Gist. Gist assembles all the people in your address book and creates sort of virtual pages for them, populating each with whatever it can find on the Internet about them.
So, their LinkedIn page, their twitter feed, their MySpace page, their blog, any mentions of them in the media, are all collected together, alongside your email exchanges with them and other people involved in those email exchanges. Calendar entries, and email attachments, are all there easily found and reconciled.
The result is a somewhat disconcerting, but very useful, page which tells you everything you need to know about that person in order to remain in contact.
Indeed, that’s the purpose of Gist: to turn business networking into more of a science and less an art. You can see when you last communicated with them—and whether you should ping them to keep things bubbling.
Gist has even bought a service that flashes photos of your contacts at you to help you remember who they are.
From a privacy point of view, it’s unnerving to see your details so readily collated in someone else’s address book. And from a human point of view, it’s scary to see the personal reduced to a few algorithms and search spiders.
But it’s actually very useful, and turns our familiar tools of email and contact books into something more dynamic.
I don’t care so much about staying in touch with business contacts; I do, however, like to be able to see what my friends and colleagues have been talking about. And to be able to see all that on one page is a boon.
It bypasses both my address book and my email service. Gist finds pictures of the people I’m corresponding with before I’ve even met them. (Some surprises are in store: Not everyone is the gender you think they are.)
This, in short, is what has happened to our notions of privacy. What once would have been considered somewhat creepy stalking is now considered a valid means of staying on top of all the people and bits and pieces in your professional life.
No more garden fences. Now it’s more like a permanent open house cum garage sale, where anyone can poke around as much as they like.
And maybe offer you a job.