The Right to Lurk

Online users who want a certain amount of anonymity will want to stay off Quora. Their new Views feature is set to track which users have looked at your posts. Some good coverage on the subject via Gigaom.

This type of insider knowledge has always been a bit of a balancing act. On one side, this information is incredibly valuable to the websites that collect it. Heck, it’s a core element of Linkedin’s paid account service — seeing who’s viewed your profile over the last X number of days. As a user, my interests are divided. It both intrigues me to know who’s viewed my profile, and at the same time, drives me crazy knowing that my own name is showing up on other people’s ‘viewed’ lists.

Web users have had a long tradition of being able to freely lurk; and unless you engage somehow or contribute content under a registered account, you could use the web without leaving much of a trail. Like it or not, online culture isn’t going to drop that tradition easily. My guess is that Quora will lose users over this feature, or rescind the service in the months ahead.

But this balance goes the other way too. Google Analytics has stopped tracking keyword searches that are carried out under a secured connection (https://), which is now default on both Google’s Chrome and Firefox. The problem here, in my view, is that it pushes too far in the opposite direction. Keyword search data has never been tied to specific individuals usage in the past, and has been aggregated and reported back to website owners since the very first web servers. We parsed the server logs with scripts back in the ’90s, so as much as things have changed, they really haven’t.

I see this divide from both viewpoints, frankly. I’m a user of the web who enjoys my privacy. I don’t want Quora, or LinkedIn for that matter, putting my name and face to my online activity without my consent; and especially without any active engagement. But I also see anonymous contribution to marketing data as part of that tradeoff. The websites that I visit, or Google even, give me a lot of value for free. Publishers disclaim this type of data collection in their terms of use, and in my view, deserve this small amount of usage feedback from their visitors.

User group and demographic profiling is set to go off the charts. With social networks and people registering A LOT of personal data on these sites, it makes sense that these companies are going to want to monetize this data. Given the lack of usage fees, that’s the price of admission. So I’ll deal with it, and select my online tools accordingly.

I just wish they’d leave my name and face out of it. Doesn’t seem that much to ask.

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