For Web’s New Wave, Sharing Details Is the Point
Mark Brooks wants the whole Web to know that he spent $41 on an iPad case at an Apple store, $24 eating at an Applebee’s, and $6,450 at a Florida plastic surgery clinic for nose work.
Too much information, you say? On the Internet, there seems to be no such thing. A wave of Web start-ups aims to help people indulge their urge to divulge — from sites like Blippy, which Mr. Brooks used to broadcast news of what he bought, to Foursquare, a mobile social network that allows people to announce their precise location to the world, to Skimble, an iPhone application that people use to reveal, say, how many push-ups they are doing and how long they spend in yoga class.
Not that long ago, many were leery of using their real names on the Web, let alone sharing potentially embarrassing personal details about their shopping and lifestyle habits. But these start-ups are exploiting a mood of online openness, despite possible hidden dangers.
“People are not necessarily thinking about how long this information will stick around, or how it could be used and exploited by marketers,” said Chris Conley, a technology and civil liberties fellow at the American Civil Liberties Union.
The spirit of sharing has already run into some roadblocks. Amazon.com was so wary of the security ramifications of Blippy’s idea of letting consumers post everything they bought that, for several months, it blocked the site from allowing people to publish their Amazon purchases.
In March, Blippy sidestepped Amazon by asking its customers for access to their Gmail accounts, and then took the purchase data from the receipts Amazon had e-mailed them. Blippy says thousands of its users have supplied the keys to their e-mail accounts; Amazon declined to comment.
There is no way to quantify the number of these start-ups, but they are the rage among venture capitalists. Although some doubt whether the sites will gain true mainstream popularity — and whether they will make any money — the entrepreneurs involved think they are on to something.
Blippy, which opened last fall, was the first site to introduce the notion of publishing credit card and other purchases. Last month it attracted around 125,000 visitors and closed an investment round of $11 million from venture capitalists. It hopes to one day make money by, among other things, taking a commission when people are inspired to imitate their friends’ purchases posted on the site.
The people behind Swipely, a site soon to arrive and similar to Blippy, are also optimistic.
“We will help people discover a great restaurant or movie through their friends and make it easy to recommend their own purchases,” said Angus Davis, 32, a veteran of Netscape and Microsoft who is testing Swipely with a limited group of users. “I really believe that the lens of your friends is fast becoming the most powerful way to discover things on the Internet.”
Mr. Brooks, a 38-year-old consultant for online dating Web sites, seems to be a perfect customer. He publishes his travel schedule on Dopplr. His DNA profile is available on 23andMe. And on Blippy, he makes public everything he spends with his Chase Mastercard, along with his spending at Netflix, iTunes and Amazon.com.
“It’s very important to me to push out my character and hopefully my good reputation as far as possible, and that means being open,” he said, dismissing any privacy concerns by adding, “I simply have nothing to hide.”
This new world owes its origin to the rampant sharing of photos, résumés and personal news bites on services like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, which have acclimated people to broadcasting even the most mundane aspects of their lives.
To Silicon Valley’s deep thinkers, this is all part of one big trend: People are becoming more relaxed about privacy, having come to recognize that publicizing little pieces of information about themselves can result in serendipitous conversations — and little jolts of ego gratification.
DailyBooth, founded in London but moving to San Francisco, asks users to publish a photograph of themselves every day. “It’s the richest and quickest way to share how you are doing and what you are feeling,” said Brian Pokorny, a Silicon Valley investor who recently became the company’s chief executive.
While the over-30 set might recoil from this type of activity, young people do not seem to mind. The site, which gets around 300,000 visitors a month, according to the online research company Compete.com, appears to be largely populated with enthusiastically exhibitionist teenagers.
Still, only two years ago, Facebook members rebelled when the site introduced its notorious Beacon service, which published members’ online transactions back to the site — essentially the same concept as Blippy and Swipely.
A decade ago, Dennis Crowley was trying to get people to share information about their geographic location with a service called Dodgeball. For years, he said, he faced a barrage of questions about why anyone would want an update on where someone was having a beer.
“After we sold the company to Google and they shut it down, we left those questions to Twitter, and they did a great job of answering them,” said Mr. Crowley, who went on to create Foursquare, which Silicon Valley venture capitalists are competing to finance. “This kind of sharing makes people feel connected to each other,” he said.
But there is the worry about identity theft.
“Ten years ago, people were afraid to buy stuff online. Now they’re sharing everything they buy,” said Barry Borsboom, a student at Leiden University in the Netherlands, who this year created an intentionally provocative site called Please Rob Me. The site collected and published Foursquare updates that indicated when people were out socializing — and therefore away from their homes.
“Times are changing, and most people might not know where the dangers lie,” Mr. Borsboom said.
The business plans for these start-ups are no sure thing, either.
“These companies are betting they take this data, monetize it or resell it,” said John Borthwick, an entrepreneur based in New York who advises companies like DailyBooth and Hot Potato, which lets people share plans and experiences of live events. “But the assumption that every scrap of data is actually useful to individuals, or even companies, will be tested.”