I’ve been wrestling with this problem for a few years, I’m curious to see how Adaptive Blue‘s new Glue product tackles it. The problem focuses on how to adequately manage privacy concerns when user information is passively contributed to a community or social network.

In active contribution, it’s pretty straightforward. I may actively bookmark an article on delicious, actively share a post on friendfeed, actively add a connection on LinkedIn, actively post my whereabouts on Twitter. The systems have different privacy options (keep private, restrict to your connections, make public, etc), but since this functionality is often difficult to understand, and often keeps changing (along with privacy policies) the general rule of thumb seems to be to only actively post what you comfortable being public.

Passive contribution is more difficult. Facebook beacon passively tracked my Amazon purchases and Loki automatically broadcasts my location on my blog (see right panel). At Visible Path, we built an Outlook plug-in that automatically added connections to your network as you exchanged emails.

Almost all of the passive contribution systems have faced privacy backlash. Although actual privacy problems seem rare (we had one issue at Visible Path in my four years), the concerns get voiced in (often outlandish) ways that seems to stall adoption:

  • What if I buy a medicated cream on Amazon and it gets broadcast to my friends in my feed? (Facebook)
  • What if I trade emails with my mistress and she gets added and noticed by my wife? (Visible Path)
  • What if my abusive husband can track exactly where I am? (Loki)

Adaptive Blue’s new Glue service is a firefox plug-in that automatically shows me people in my network and the broader community who have viewed, commented on, or rated books, movies and other items across a broad network of sites.

The service could be extremely valuable to consumers, connecting people with interests in common. At the same time, the same issues arise, as users are connected around potentially sensitive books and topics.

Clutzr, BlogRovr, SocialBrowse, and Visible Path have all struggled with the pitfalls of passive contribution. I don’t have the data to back it up, but I suspect the privacy concerns limited the broad adoption of these services. I’ve tried all of them and ultimately uninstalled (except Visible Path!) them because of nagging privacy concerns.

The folks at Adaptive Blue are very smart. I’m looking forward to seeing if they’ve developed a new and clever way of handling this.

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