net.wars: Get thee behind me, Plaxo

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 05 March 2004

Every so often a kind of collective madness sweeps the Net, in which intelligent people adopt behaviour they would never normally consider.

Wendy M Grossman

The most glaring past example of this is, of course, the dot-com bubble, when people who would never dream of putting a fiver on a horse suddenly were willing to wager thousands of dollars of retirement money on fantasy business plans. But there are many others.

My favourite was probably watching the Good Times "virus" hoax sweep through the newspapers: for a year or two, you could always tell when one had newly gotten online because they'd run the story. (That was, of course, in the happy days before easy HTML rendering and auto-running of attached files made this risk a reality, thank you, Microsoft.) These journalists were trained in real life not to run stories without checking them out. They wouldn't have written that a local pub was closing without calling the proprietor to ask. But something that arrived by email from a stranger - that, in the unfamiliar new milieu, they'd run without checking.

Something of the kind is going on with Plaxo first and foremost, and with social networking services generally. Privacy-minded people who would never dream of, say, handing out my home phone number to strangers without checking first are perfectly happy to hand over the entire contents of their address books to a service they've only just heard of.

And I get the email.

Please, friends, if you are signing up for Plaxo include me out. I am sick of those little "Hi, I've just joined Plaxo and could you update your details"? messages with their stupid attached software and their idiot HTML formatting. You'd think, in a time when everyone is furious about spam, people would be more careful with email addresses than this. A friend who recently installed Plaxo for his 2,000-plus contact book (and, yes, emailed everyone in it including me, twice, because he had me listed under two different addresses, and YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE) collated responses. A lot of people hated it; journalists were wary of the privacy implications. Marketers loved it. (If marketers love a thing, shouldn't that be 'nuff said to condemn it?)

The other thing I don't understand, by the by, is what the point is of sending out update requests to people whose email addresses may have changed.

The first of these things came from my tennis coach. This is a man whose computer we have struggled endlessly to free of viruses. Would I run an attached file from this man? Sure, just like I'd buy a used car from Nixon, hire Clinton to safeguard the virginity of a 21-year-old intern, or ask Shrubya to decide whether oil companies or schools should get the money he's just "saved" by giving Americans all tax cuts.

The obvious concern with a service like this is privacy. The Australian privacy activist Roger Clarke has done a paper on this, but in brief his main points are that the company's stated policies are internally contradictory and that in any case, the third parties whose details are in your address book are perforce disclosed to the service without their agreement, This is more true, of course, of the burgeoning social network services, such as Orkut, Friendster, and LinkedIn.

But the only way to get these update request emails to stop arriving, as far as I can tell, is to sign up for the service yourself (using the Web version in my case, since I do not now nor ever have used Outlook) and enter your details and tick the box for an automatic update. Plaxo could improve upon this a great deal by making it possible to sign up for a blackout list. I would resent having to sign up with Plaxo to do it, but if I could fill out a form that automatically sent a note to anyone who sent an update request saying "This person has blocked all Plaxo requests", that would still be an improvement. But either way it's backwards: the service should be opt-out, not opt-in.

It turns out that it is in fact possible for Plaxo users to select which contacts they will email for updates. The problem is that most newcomers (and, I suspect, many experienced users) don't know or think to do this. I got a Plaxo request the other night from one of my US editors, who was just reviewing the product. He, like other experienced Netheads of my acquaintance, had no idea it would up and email his entire address book. In Europe, there is an interesting question here, because the data protection laws were designed based on the idea that only companies process data. Now, we all do.

The basic idea behind it is actually a good one that meets a real need, just like the phone book is a good idea. Everyone is having to keep track of more and more - and more and more mobile - people. Everyone you know has four phone numbers, and half of them move every couple of years. Automating keeping track of these changes is the kind of thing the Net is good for.

I just wish they hadn't done it in this stupid way.

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).