My Wish for 2010: A Personal Dashboard for the Social Web

Give, give, give — that’s all I (and other social web users) do. We share a lot of information about ourselves these days, and we get a lot out of that experience (monetarily speaking, the companies that provide the social web environment get even more). But I hardly know what happens to my status updates, comments and photos. Where do they go, how do they get spread, and who has access to them?

I think it’s about time for a personal dashboard to track and view what happens to what we share online. This would have two primary uses: 1) Privacy: I’d have a better idea of what’s publicly known about myself, and 2) Analytics: Like any content publisher, I’d be interested in checking my stats and trends.

Current Examples

There are already some services that give me glimpses into where my data goes and who sees it:

  • You can get analytics of who your Twitter followers are and how they respond to your content through services like this one from Ad.ly and PeopleBrowsr.
  • Facebook has a somewhat buried privacy feature called “How others see you” that allows you to look at your profile through the eyes (and privacy settings) of any other user.
  • LinkedIn has a “Viewers of this profile also viewed…” feature that can get a little creepy, but shows potential overlaps with people who may be in your line of business.
  • Bit.ly provides analytics for the shortened URLs it creates, so if you share a Bit.ly link you can find out when, where and how people found it.

Privacy

Web users are becoming more aware of privacy issues, though random conspiracy theories may actually be better circulated than legitimate changes, like Facebook’s recent privacy settings change that made much of its users’ content public by default. Still, when we live so much of our lives online it’s hard to know what’s private and whether services are treating our information with the proper respect.

In an emotional and compelling guest post on TechCrunch over the weekend, Angstro founder Rohit Khare complains that social networks and application developers over-complicate and under-deliver on privacy. His conclusion: “Enforce your ToS [terms of service] and obey others’ ToS — or else stop setting unrealistic expectations and just let users have their data back!”

Just knowing where your information goes would help us out of this mess. Eventually, some kind of centralized and independent identity dashboard where you could actually manage, control and delete that information could be the next step.

Analytics

In some ways, this idea would be an evolution of the ego search. Today we look at how many web pages display our name, and how high we rank on Google. Tomorrow, we could look back at everything we’ve emitted to the web, and where it’s traveled. It would be even neater if this hypothetical dashboard functioned like the Internet Archive, so we could get a time capsule about what was known about us online at any one time.

I ran some of these ideas by open web advocate Chris Messina, who compared them to a “digital food chain” in the manner of the whimsical and informative annual reports put together by Daytum founder Nicholas Feltron. Messina commented via email,

How you get to that place, though, well, that’d require a lot more transparency into where data goes, where it comes from, and having some kind of omniscient player standing in the ether and able to track all this stuff. Without owning the stack yourself, I’m not sure the privacy gods would allow such a system to exist.

Messina suggested that if this were to work, users could eventually even sell insights about their personal data to advertisers. But that’s a whole new level, where people’s motivations for sharing would become knotty and gamed.

The one big downside of a service like this would be if it got too good — by enabling you to reverse-stalk the people who are stalking you online. If there’s a single person on a certain city block who accesses my Twitter feed through TweetDeck three times per day, that’s probably worth being left out in the 1s and 0s in the ether. After all, one of the core ideas of the Internet is to allow some semblance of anonymity, right? You don’t want to infringe on people’s ability to consume information.

Photo by Flickr user, Cameron Cassan aka Shot_by_Cam.

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