Social discovery apps are starting to pick up where social networking software leaves off. New apps hitting the market allow users to search for other individuals based on their age, name, gender, location and interests. They also allow the storage and research on troves and troves of user generated data which can then be analyzed by groups of scientists in order to uncover hidden patterns of our lives, thoughts or political views.
Sites like Pintrest.com already fit this definition, but some smartphone apps are now focusing more on the users physical location metrics than on anything else. For instance, ‘Uberlife’ is a site designed to find people to meet in ‘real life’. It uses both Twitter.com and Facebook.com to identify things users like and notifies them when things they like are happening near them.
While Internet users play games or chat with other individuals online, Uberlife is primarily geared toward helping its users find people around them geographically to meet offline. However, privacy concerns are starting to stand in the way of Uberlife’s expansion. Uberlife is “totally open”, meaning its completely public for the time being, and some don’t consider that particularly secure. Any user can see and join groups and events or even public hangouts users create and participate in.
Behavio is another startup project which began as a piece of open source software at MIT Media Lab Funf, a laboratory of MIT School of Architecture and Planning dedicated to research in design, multimedia and technology. The program promises to turn cellular phones into devices that can sense real world behavior of individual consumers. It was among the winners of a recent Knight Foundation News Challenge, which paid out $1.37 million in grants for innovative media applications.
Behavio can take cell phone data and make deductions about what occurs in the phone’s surrounding area – something which can be of great help to news journalists and those in the media. Naturally, photographers can glean much more information from this data than a mere image. However, Behavio’s designers have even bigger aspirations for the software. Behavio is actually aiming to collect data about entire communities for sociological studies. The data would be used to track how individuals become friends and how people make decisions in life. It would also collect information about people’s movement and even their temperature. User data is said to be anonymous, and anyone who uses the Behavio service has to give their consent to send data, but users of apps are often oblivious to the amount of data their giving access to.
Although the majority of ordinary people want and expect their privacy to be protected, scientific experiments don’t interest them and users often lack interest in policing the services they use, ensuring that there information is, in fact, protected. Conspiracy theorists have already complained about how they feel that cell phones are illegal tracking devices. Even regular users have been concerned that people could easily track them by following their phone signals.
Either way, social networking has fundamentally changed the way the world finds and shares information. It also changes greatly what people consider to be a reasonable expectation of privacy when posting thoughts, opinions, likes or dislikes online. While there might have been a moral panic about strangers on the Internet fifteen years ago, modern computer users don’t seem to care much about whom they share their contact details with and how that data may or may not being used, and may not find out for years to come. In years or decades ahead, there may be many people who wished they did not write or otherwise make public those ideas, images or thoughts long ago. As it is, Google CEO Eric Schmidt believes that there will be a need, and possibly even a right, for younger people to escape their past when he stated “that every young person one day will be entitled automatically to change his or her name on reaching adulthood in order to disown youthful hijinks stored on their friends’ social media sites.”