The prying game

Before you reveal all on a networking site, remember that it may be used as a marketing tool, says Alice Fordham
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The Independent Online

Frankie Roberto likes to socialise online. The University College London student has a website and a weblog, and regularly posts profiles of himself on several of the hundreds of social-networking websites on which he hopes to meet like-minded people. Earlier this year, he set up an account at www.43things.com, where he was asked to list his goals and aspirations, including writing a book or learning to make sushi. He was then put in touch with people with similar aims.

Frankie Roberto likes to socialise online. The University College London student has a website and a weblog, and regularly posts profiles of himself on several of the hundreds of social-networking websites on which he hopes to meet like-minded people. Earlier this year, he set up an account at www.43things.com, where he was asked to list his goals and aspirations, including writing a book or learning to make sushi. He was then put in touch with people with similar aims.

Networking sites such as 43 Things have become hugely popular, used by millions of people who entrust their personal data to cyberspace, and share hobbies with people on the other side of the world. It's easy to forget, looking at the personal profiles on these social sites, that they are also putting this information in the public domain. But the real world can impinge on the internet's social utopia. So, when Frankie confides that what he really wants to do is visit Los Angeles, or write a novel, who else is watching?

Despite the friendly ethos of many social sites, big business is not unaware of their potential as a sophisticated market-research tool. Launched in January, 43 Things, sells itself as a friendly start-up company. When users list their hopes and dreams, the site's creators join in. Members of the Robot Co-op, the team that set up the site, list goals such as "start up a business that will last more than two years". The team also writes a collective blog with pictures of their bare office and details of the company's progress.

But last month it was revealed that, far from being some local business, it is Amazon, the internet's biggest retailer, that is in fact the sole investor in 43 Things. Several members of the Robot Co-op used to work for Amazon, and, if you look at 43 Things' blueprint, the privacy policy clearly states: "We work closely with other businesses, and we may share user information with other businesses."

Is Amazon, a company that already runs "personalisation technology" to identify what users buy and recommend other purchases, analysing what Frankie writes on 43 Things? Is it naive to be surprised to find a huge business behind this "start-up" company? Judging by the reactions of 43 Things users, perhaps not. "I have been a little suspicious of the relationship between 43 Things and Amazon," says Frankie, "but so far, very little has been said about what the precise relationship is."

Frankie has decided that using social sites is a trade-off between giving up control over his information and meeting other interested people. Information that he isn't happy for a large corporation to see, he prefers to put on his blog. Other members of various message boards also seemed shocked and suspicious of the big business involvement. Although Amazon's "personalisation" tactic is long-established, it is still far from welcomed. One entry says: "I don't consider a huge retailer having even larger amounts of information about myself a good thing. I don't want a more personalised web experience at the expense of my privacy."

The distrust arises not just because 43 Things is funded by a large company, but because Amazon wasn't totally upfront about its involvement in it. "Generally, I think people are happy to participate in a social-networking website," says Frankie, "so long as they get some sense of transparency from the company that owns it, and see that that company cares about the community."

"People using 43 Things are publicising their goals," says Josh Peterson, leader of Robot Co-op, and a former Amazon employee. But 611 people have listed that their goal is to fall in love, and judging by some of the heartfelt comments, many use the site as an anonymous personal diary. "Is this blogging?" is one of the questions on the site's FAQs. "Shhh..." is the reply. "Don't worry about that. It is what you make of it."

This hardly discourages personal entries. "Quite a few people seem to have posted rather personal goals on 43 Things (like me)," writes Julian, on a message board. "I didn't post my intention of telling my mum I was gay because I wanted Amazon to recommend a book to me; I posted it there so I'd see it and hopefully get around to it, with the tiny chance that someone might click 'I've done this' and write something encouraging." He adds: "My 43 Things account is now closed."

Amazon is not the only business to get quietly involved in what seem like personal enterprises. Google has devoted 10 per cent of its research budget to a site that buys into the personal ethos by naming itself after its founder. Orkut Buyukkokten dreamed up Orkut early last year, and operated it on the most old-fashioned of social principles. He invited his friends to join, they invited their friends to join, and now there are over four million members.

Google makes money by scanning information on a site and targeting a reader with relevant advertising. It has already attracted criticism for the scanning of e-mail in its Gmail accounts, and now information placed on Orkut in the spirit of personal interaction could become subject to the same scanning of information and targeted advertising. A Google spokesperson refused to comment on whether Google would ever advertise on Orkut, but said of the privacy concerns with Gmail: "There's a misunderstanding about the way it works. Anyone who has Outlook or any anti-virus software on their computer has all their e-mails scanned in a very similar way. And we would definitely never share any information with another company."

Google monopolises the two most popular internet activities of checking e-mails, and using a search engine. It has also bought up Blogger, the most popular blogging host. And yet few people realise the extent of its influence. As with 43 Things, the emphasis may seem to be towards personal interaction rather than commercialism, but despite the blurring of boundaries between the world and the web, internet businesses are not immune from real-life finance. Everyone who creates an online persona hopes that like-minded people will read it. But they should be aware that the men and women in suits will probably do so, too.

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