Google, Facebook, and RockMelt Chase Fantasy Feudalism

Last Updated Nov 8, 2010 4:02 PM EST

It's a social network kind of news day. On one hand, Google (GOOG) limiting Facebook access to Gmail contacts. In a separate tidbit, RockMelt, with apt backing from Mosaic and Netscape co-founder Marc Andreessen, released a browser that integrates social networks as part of the normal user experience.

Although separate, it turns out that the stories are related by intent. Aside from their obvious interest for consumers, social networks attract corporations. Not just because they represent a way to market and connect with consumers, but because they represent the new frontier in vacuuming user data for better marketing and advertising. Forget anything that any company official says about open or closed or social graphs. Every business in this sector is interested in exactly one thing: nailing down and owning as much consumer personal data as possible and turning people into plots that, carefully tended, can yield corporate revenue.

First, let's look at the Google and Facebook dust-up. Contrary to the sense you might get from many stories about the topic, this isn't the first time a company has frozen out Facebook. Amazon (AMZN) negotiated a one-way deal with Facebook in August. The retailer won't provide any customer private data, but will pull the social relationship data that Facebook has.

This was a reversal of Facebook's proclivity to suck up as much relationship data (in the form of contact lists, for example) as possible from other companies. As I said at the time, conditions were developing where no one would want to give the company information. And, as Ryan Singel at Ars Technica notes, Facebook talks out of both sides of it's corporate orifice. A new facility lets you download your data -- except contact information so you can reach the people you have listed as friends.

I disagree with Singel's thought that the stance is ludicrous, as I find it easy to imagine that you might accept a friend request from someone and still not want direct emails from the person. However, his point that Facebook does allow importing into Yahoo (YHOO) Mail or Microsoft (MSFT) Hotmail. In other words, this isn't a matter of principle, but one of business strategy.

But it's not as though Facebook is the bad guy and Google the hero when you consider companies that want to hold and control data. Look at what it can take to get Google to delete personal information. A new example is the RockMelt browser. Someone I know was on the early beta invite list and installed it. Here's an admittedly brief first impression:
All I know is I installed RockMelt last night and now, poof, I can't shut it off. It's sort of forced social: You will use this browser and you will show all your FB friends what you're up to. I joke, sort of, and I haven't really fooled with it. Just odd initial experience.
And that's what you'll see increasingly more of. It's like going to a media site without paywalls or even a paid option and expecting that there should be no advertisements. None of these services are charities.

As I've pointed out before, it's also not as though the most aggressive personal data aggregators are online. Gathering social, financial, demographic, and other data is a very old occupation. The difference with the social networks, though, is that it happens in real time. It's as though each company wants to stake a claim to individuals -- gather everything possible in behavior and then turn that into data to be sold, rented, or even used on behalf of paying clients.

You could call it a form of intellectual and behavioral feudalism, except that there is a soft underbelly: it's often about as real as a fantasy football league. Companies gather this and that and then think that they actually know what people are doing. And yet, often the information is wildly misdirecting, whether people intend to obfuscate or not.

After the Wall Street Journal last month decided to write about RapLeaf as part of its series of online privacy, blogger and law professor Eric Goldman wrote a post titled, "My RapLeaf Profile is Amusingly Mistaken. This is What the Fuss is All About?" He went to RapLeaf, looked at the information it had on him and found it almost completely generic and incredibly inaccurate. It brought to mind another post I saw (unfortunately, I don't remember the source) that discussed how off Google's location information on a person can be.

The social networks want to follow all consumers and will savagely defend their ability to collect and keep data, so they can be the source with such unique information that advertisers will pay handsomely to do business. Nevertheless, it's as though the companies are following not the consumers themselves, but a collection of fun house mirror images.

Over time the analysis techniques will get better, but, given how long people have tried to snoop on each other to make a buck, perhaps real improvement is much further off than anyone in the industry would like to admit. After all, no matter how badly the social networks want to automate the process, judging the value and meaning of information generally requires more experience and common sense than you can find in a set of artificial intelligence routines.

There is an irony here. The companies that would be social networking kings jealously guard their information, keep users locked in as much as they can, and jealously watch their competitors. But their biggest danger may be the chance that advertisers begin to realize just how ineffective the networks can be.

Related: Image: Flickr user ell brown, CC 2.0.
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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.

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