Hmmm, perhaps we will lose all privacy. Or more likely, people will become experts at selectively revealing what they want and hiding the rest.
In short, before the web, we could pretty safely assume that our hard drive rummaging, our email, and our networking habits – in short, our clickstream – were ephemeral, known only to us (and soon forgotten by us, I’d wager).
But as I've posted before, and as many have noted before me, as an internet culture we are steadily moving our ephemeral habits from the desktop to the web, and from our local control to the servers of corporations. (I was not surprised to learn yesterday that one in ten internet users have registered at a social network, for example, and one in five have visited one). The reason for this shift is simple: innovative companies have figured out how to deliver great services (and make money) by divining clickstream patterns, be it a underlying divination, like PageRank, or a more direct one, such as AdWords or Amazon’s recommendation system. And from a consumers’ point of view, there are also very simple and compelling reasons for this shift: services like search, Plaxo and Gmail make our lives easier, faster and more convenient. But as we move our data from the edges to the center, a question arises: Have our assumptions moved with our data?
Brad Templeton, among many others, offers perhaps the most reasonable assessment of this question as it relates to Gmail (his conclusion: we need to revise our assumptions about privacy and ownership), but I’d argue that the issues he raises can be more broadly discussed in relation to search.
Search provides a framework for thinking not only about mail (what is it about Gmail that makes it really unique? It’s searchable…), but for our entire clickstream, which is fast becoming an asset - certainly to the individual, but in particular to the internet industry. Search drives clickstreams, and clickstreams drive profits. To profit in the internet space, corporations need access to clickstreams. And this, more than any other reason, is why clickstreams are becoming eternal. As we root around in the global information space, search has become our spade, the point of our inquiry and discovery. The empty box and blinking cursor presage your next digital artifact, the virgin blue link over which your mouse hovers will transform into one more footprint through this era’s Olduvain ash.
But once eternal, what then? Beyond commerce, what happens to our culture when the previously unknown becomes knowable, and, to ping Kevin Kelly, out of control? I’d love to hear what you think, I’d guess that the consequences are pretty far reaching.