November 15, 2010
Suppose a company offered you a billion dollars in exchange for a portion of your privacy. To make this arrangement palatable, imagine that the company promises that your data will only be used anonymously. You don’t totally trust them, but it’s not as if you rob banks in your spare time. You don’t have much to hide.
Now imagine that you can selectively leave out of this deal any future plans that are deeply personal. And you can leave out anything that might get you fired, embarrassed, or injured in any way. Those exclusions would be allowed by contract. And you could leave out any mention of your past, where most of your misdeeds happened anyway. Now do you accept this deal?
Most of you probably said yes, although you might have more questions about this arrangement just to be sure you’re not dealing with Satan. Now suppose instead of a billion dollars, the company only offered a million. Some of you would walk away at that price. How about $100,000?
My point is that your privacy has an economic value. Or it could, if such a market was created. Today you give away your privacy for nothing, in dribs and drabs. Your credit card company knows some things about you, your phone company knows others, and FaceBook knows a lot.
One thing that all of those companies have in common is that the private information they possess involves mostly your past, and not so much your future. When you post pictures on Facebook, it is a record of where you were, not a prediction of where you will be. Likewise, your credit card company and the phone company have records of what you did, as opposed to what you plan to do next.
Privacy about your past is so cheap that you literally give it away. Privacy about your future plans is another matter. That has real value.
Obviously the past has some utility for predicting the future. If you enjoy a certain activity today, you’ll probably like it tomorrow. But predictions based on the past do not have the same economic value as, for example, knowing that you plan to buy a truck in the next month. Or perhaps you are planning a trip to Europe, or planning to find a new job. Private knowledge of your future would be worth a lot to advertisers. You wouldn’t give away that sort of privacy for nothing.
Here’s the Facebook killer part of my post. As I mentioned, Facebook is primarily a record of your past. Imagine a competing service that I will name Futureme for convenience. It’s an online system in which you post only your plans, both immediate and future. As with FaceBook, you decide who can see your plans. You might, for example, allow only specific family members to see your medical plans, but all of your friends can see your vacation plans, or your plans to buy a new couch.
The interface for Futureme is essentially a calendar, much like Outlook. But it would include extra layers for hopes and goals that don’t have specific dates attached.
For every entry to your Futureme calendar, you specify who can see it, including advertisers. If you allow advertisers a glimpse of a specific plan, it would be strictly anonymous. Advertisers could then feed you ads specific to your plan, while not knowing who they sent it to. The Futureme service would be the intermediary.
Now imagine that you never have to see any of the incoming ads except by choice. If you plan to buy a truck in a month, you would need to click on that entry to see which local truck advertisements have been matched to your plans. This model turns advertising from a nuisance into a tool. You‘d never see an ad on Furureme that wasn’t relevant to your specific plans.
The biggest benefit of the system could come from your network of friends and business associates. Suppose you post on the system that you would like to see a Bon Jovi concert sometime in the next year. Now your friends – the ones you specify to see this specific plan – can decide if they want in on it. Maybe someone you know can get free tickets, and someone has a van and is willing to be the designated driver. Maybe someone has a contact that can get you backstage passes. By broadcasting your plan, you make it possible for others to improve your plan.
Conversely, if you plan to do something stupid, your contacts have time to talk you out of it or suggest a superior alternative.
Your plans could be very general at first, such as a desire to go out next Saturday. Click on your Futureme entry on Thursday and perhaps you will see that three of your friends have the same general desire, and one of them has an idea of what to do. It’s like Evite, but it allows you to move from a general plan to a specific one.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re worried that this system allows the stalkers and mooches in your network to ruin your future plans. But remember, you are only broadcasting your plans to people you specify. If you choose to tell a stalker where you’ll be, don’t blame the application when you get stabbed.
Almost any kind of plan can be improved by your network. If you plan to buy something, it would be handy to automatically receive ideas, opinions, links, and relevant ads. If you plan a vacation to the mountains, your friends and business associates would tell you the best place to stay and the fun things to do. Your biggest vendor might throw in some freebees to keep you happy. Almost everything you plan to do could be improved by advertisers and friends.
Gift-giving would suddenly be easy. Just check what someone is planning to do, then plan a gift around it. Advertisers could automatically provide gift ideas around every planned activity. It would have the same utility as a bridal registry, albeit less filtered.
If you have kids, you’re continuously matching their planned activities with that of their friends so you can arrange car pools, play dates, birthday gift-buying and more. It’s a logistical nightmare. It would help a lot if mothers knew what the other mothers were planning.
Facebook succeeds in part because it is addictive. People like to talk about themselves, and people are nosey. But if you think people are nosey about what you did last weekend, imagine how nosey they would be about what vacation you are planning. It’s a whole new level of nosey.
Yes, people already discuss their plans on Facebook. But doing so has a small payback because the system isn’t optimized to improve your plans. You might discuss only 10% of your plans on Facebook, but 80% on Futureme, because the payoff would be greater.
It would be a pain to enter all of your plans into the system, and keep it updated, but it would save you a huge amount of time in the long run. That would be your payoff for “selling” your privacy.
Imagine how different society would be if most people started sharing their plans. I think it’s a world changer, on par of importance with the invention of capitalism, and the rule of law.