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Suppose a company offered you a billion dollars in exchange for a portion of your privacy. To make this arrangement palatable, imagine that the company promises that your data will only be used anonymously. You don't totally trust them, but it's not as if you rob banks in your spare time. You don't have much to hide.

Now imagine that you can selectively leave out of this deal any future plans that are deeply personal. And you can leave out anything that might get you fired, embarrassed, or injured in any way. Those exclusions would be allowed by contract. And you could leave out any mention of your past, where most of your misdeeds happened anyway. Now do you accept this deal?

Most of you probably said yes, although you might have more questions about this arrangement just to be sure you're not dealing with Satan. Now suppose instead of a billion dollars, the company only offered a million. Some of you would walk away at that price. How about $100,000?

My point is that your privacy has an economic value. Or it could, if such a market was created. Today you give away your privacy for nothing, in dribs and drabs. Your credit card company knows some things about you, your phone company knows others, and FaceBook knows a lot. 

One thing that all of those companies have in common is that the private information they possess involves mostly your past, and not so much your future. When you post pictures on Facebook, it is a record of where you were, not a prediction of where you will be. Likewise, your credit card company and the phone company have records of what you did, as opposed to what you plan to do next.

Privacy about your past is so cheap that you literally give it away. Privacy about your future plans is another matter. That has real value.

Obviously the past has some utility for predicting the future. If you enjoy a certain activity today, you'll probably like it tomorrow. But predictions based on the past do not have the same economic value as, for example, knowing that you plan to buy a truck in the next month. Or perhaps you are planning a trip to Europe, or planning to find a new job. Private knowledge of your future would be worth a lot to advertisers. You wouldn't give away that sort of privacy for nothing.

Here's the Facebook killer part of my post. As I mentioned, Facebook is primarily a record of your past. Imagine a competing service that I will name Futureme for convenience. It's an online system in which you post only your plans, both immediate and future. As with FaceBook, you decide who can see your plans. You might, for example, allow only specific family members to see your medical plans, but all of your friends can see your vacation plans, or your plans to buy a new couch.

The interface for Futureme is essentially a calendar, much like Outlook. But it would include extra layers for hopes and goals that don't have specific dates attached.

For every entry to your Futureme calendar, you specify who can see it, including advertisers. If you allow advertisers a glimpse of a specific plan, it would be strictly anonymous. Advertisers could then feed you ads specific to your plan, while not knowing who they sent it to. The Futureme service would be the intermediary.

Now imagine that you never have to see any of the incoming ads except by choice. If you plan to buy a truck in a month, you would need to click on that entry to see which local truck advertisements have been matched to your plans. This model turns advertising from a nuisance into a tool. You‘d never see an ad on Furureme that wasn't relevant to your specific plans.

The biggest benefit of the system could come from your network of friends and business associates. Suppose you post on the system that you would like to see a Bon Jovi concert sometime in the next year. Now your friends - the ones you specify to see this specific plan - can decide if they want in on it.  Maybe someone you know can get free tickets, and someone has a van and is willing to be the designated driver.  Maybe someone has a contact that can get you backstage passes. By broadcasting your plan, you make it possible for others to improve your plan.

Conversely, if you plan to do something stupid, your contacts have time to talk you out of it or suggest a superior alternative.

Your plans could be very general at first, such as a desire to go out next Saturday. Click on your Futureme entry on Thursday and perhaps you will see that three of your friends have the same general desire, and one of them has an idea of what to do. It's like Evite, but it allows you to move from a general plan to a specific one.

I know what you're thinking. You're worried that this system allows the stalkers and mooches in your network to ruin your future plans. But remember, you are only broadcasting your plans to people you specify.  If you choose to tell a stalker where you'll be, don't blame the application when you get stabbed.

Almost any kind of plan can be improved by your network. If you plan to buy something, it would be handy to automatically receive ideas, opinions, links, and relevant ads. If you plan a vacation to the mountains, your friends and business associates would tell you the best place to stay and the fun things to do. Your biggest vendor might throw in some freebees to keep you happy. Almost everything you plan to do could be improved by advertisers and friends.

Gift-giving would suddenly be easy. Just check what someone is planning to do, then plan a gift around it. Advertisers could automatically provide gift ideas around every planned activity. It would have the same utility as a bridal registry, albeit less filtered.

If you have kids, you're continuously matching their planned activities with that of their friends so you can arrange car pools, play dates, birthday gift-buying and more.  It's a logistical nightmare. It would help a lot if mothers knew what the other mothers were planning.

Facebook succeeds in part because it is addictive. People like to talk about themselves, and people are nosey.  But if you think people are nosey about what you did last weekend, imagine how nosey they would be about what vacation you are planning. It's a whole new level of nosey.

Yes, people already discuss their plans on Facebook. But doing so has a small payback because the system isn't optimized to improve your plans. You might discuss only 10% of your plans on Facebook, but 80% on Futureme, because the payoff would be greater.

It would be a pain to enter all of your plans into the system, and keep it updated, but it would save you a huge amount of time in the long run. That would be your payoff for "selling" your privacy.

Imagine how different society would be if most people started sharing their plans. I think it's a world changer, on par of importance with the invention of capitalism, and the rule of law.
 
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Jan 20, 2011
Excellent post Scott. Your insight is spot-on. Privacy definitely has an economic value, but many social networking users don't factor that into their online decisions. Facebook and Twitter are useful, but is it worth it to trade your sensitive personal data to use them? Depending on who you are, the answer may be yes, and it may be no. The thing is, for many it's not a choice. Everyday, social networking users make this privacy trade-off without even knowing it. The key is educating social networking users about the importance of their online privacy, and giving them easy-to-use tools that allow them to decide when, how, and with whom to share their personal data.

Again, thanks for the great and thoughtful post (and, as always, for the hilarious comic strips).

Rob Frappier
Community Manager
Reputation.com
 
 
Nov 22, 2010
This is not a bad thing! It's making the jobs of identity thieves even easier! Do you know how many !$%*!$%*!$ thieves have to aquire a day to meet quota?
 
 
Nov 20, 2010
Scott - I think your ideas about the value & social impact of such a company are spot-on. Your assessment of what you could do with 'FutureMe' if you could get everyone to use it (gift-giving, better family interactions, etc.) are very well thought-out.

I registered to leave this comment because I launched a service very much like you describe at Poig.com about three months ago. Poig enables users to casually throw out ideas for things to do publicly, to groups, or to selected invitees. Those folks can choose to join, comment, or pass on the activity.

Over the three months that we've been live, we've learned an enormous amount about the psychology of what people will & won't share about future activities. For example, if someone already has a plan in motion & a few people joining, they are far more likely to use Poig (or FutureMe) to open the activity to a broader group of people. Additionally, the MVP we initially launched didn't include the ability to invite specific friends - you could only put something out there publicly, or to all of the Facebook friends you had connected to the service. Although we thought higher content visibility would lead to better virality, we soon found that the thought process of who & who not to invite to an event is incredibly complex & contextual. These intricacies of future interactions make it a very interesting, albeit sensitive space for startups to explore.

Anyway - we're still iterating towards a goal much like you describe (at a macro level). We could not agree more that whoever gets it right will be sitting in a very interesting & world-changing seat... here's hoping it's us.

 
 
Nov 19, 2010
Well, there are companies now that are trying to predict the future using your previous actions recorded by the internet. Recorded future is one, and it is being funded by Google and the CIA. Check out: http://trendguardian.blogspot.com/2010/11/recorded-future-see-future-with-search.html
 
 
Nov 19, 2010
On a much smaller scale, I have an Adroid app that essentially does the same thing called GroceryIQ. I input my grocery list (while it provides oh-so-helpful suggestions like "Did you mean *Campbell's* brand soup?") and then it shows me coupons for products it thinks I might like. It's the same basic principle but doesn't involve any major changes to the way I interact socially online.
 
 
Nov 17, 2010
I love the post, Scott. Coincidentally, we have just launched an early version of a microblogging site called idlike.to which lets its users share their wishes, plans and goals.

We are working on a bunch of new features and our roadmap is quite similar to your vision.

We don't see idlike.to as a Facebook killer (we'd like to take a different direction) but your post is definitely very encouraging.
 
 
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Nov 17, 2010
Scott, how could you even propose such a thing? You were my hero when you wrote that anytime there is a phone call made, the person getting called is a victim! If they were wanting to talk to the other person on the phone at that time, they would have been doing the calling. I go out of my way to make sure people do NOT know simultaneously where I am, what I am doing, when. Especially family and friends. They all think: a) I should be someplace else doing something else, and b) they own my time and labor. At least a boss (who doesn't micromanage) says have it done by time x...and doesn't care when or where you do it.
 
 
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Nov 17, 2010
I hate making plans and only do so when forced to. Once I have plans I don't like thinking about them so I couldn't see this as something for me. I also can't stand Facebook and until now I never realized why because I absolutely love Twitter and they seem like they should have the same target market. I think Facebook is the past you, your Futureme is the future you, and Twitter is the current you. The current you is what I find the most interesting and would prefer to ignore the rest exists. So because of that I could see this being really successful because it is hitting the last target market of people that look to the future. Not for me, not for everyone, but for the people that didn't get a social site for them yet. Since you are looking towards what you could have that isn't available yet I'm guessing this is definitely something for you.
 
 
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Nov 17, 2010
You are assuming that most people are rational enough to make serious plans, and consistent enough to stick to them. Come to think of it, the advertisements that would come in response to your plans could actually make you stick to them. Nevertheless I would guess that people change their plans too often for this to be such a great succes.
 
 
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Nov 16, 2010
There is probably a market out there for something like this, just not with me.

In my opinion, part of the addictiveness of facebook is the spontaneity and the capacity for instant validation. I can go on and see what random crappola my friends have been doing or thinking, post my own random thoughts and get responses. Sort of like a blog but shorter.

I'm cold at home, so I type a wall post having a sook to all about that, saying hurry up climate change before I'm forced to start killing and burning greenies. I get replies from some friends agreeing and suggesting preferred weapons, i get responses from others who are unwittingly offering themselves up as targets. Then my friends start arguing among themsleves and I can sit back, watch the mayhem and be entertained which takes my mind off being cold.

The kind of people who would use the kind of site scott proposes are the people who make lists. Lists and plans. And who think these lists and plans to be important enough to be shared.
 
 
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Nov 16, 2010
You are a national treasure, Scott.
 
 
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Nov 16, 2010
Scott,

<i>"It's an online system in which you post only your plans, both immediate and future."</i>

You mean, like Twitter?

Apparently, monetizing on a person's pithy life through a stream of updates about it is really hard.

The Futureme.com service you describe *sounds awesome*. I suspect the value of the "futureme.com" domain name that's currently parked just went up 10x.
 
 
Nov 16, 2010
For a billion dollars you can replace one of my eyes with a video camera (with audio) and broadcast every second of my life by satellite.

-Just sayin'
 
 
Nov 16, 2010
Futureme!!! thats a brilliant idea.. please dont tell me u haven't patented it yet!!!
 
 
Nov 15, 2010
Actually you estimate of $100,000 is laughably off the mark.

Facebook will make an estimated $1.5B this year of 500M users - a whopping $3 per user per year. Google makes ~$30/user/year on their searches.

So adding it all up, internet companies make at most $50/year off of your social media and search activities. Meaning lifetime, that would be worth somewhere in the range of $500-1000 per user.

Yes, your privacy is worth something. To you. To others, not so much.

[Privacy about your PAST isn't very valuable. That was my point. But what would it be worth to know all of your auto, home, vacation plans for the future for the next fifty years? -- Scott]
 
 
Nov 15, 2010
It drives me insane that you post these ideas publicly and regularly and call them crackpot schemes and go make another, rather than go make a million dollars with one on your own time. Maybe I'm a crackpot too and we'd just both lose a bunch of money on the whole deal.
 
 
+7 Rank Up Rank Down
Nov 15, 2010
I definitely wouldn't agree to that deal for a billion dollars. I would assume that there is some sort of horrible catch, like the company is planning to murder me and harvest my organs. For a more reasonable amount, though- like $100- I'd agree.
 
 
Nov 15, 2010
Facebook integration with Meetup is already part of the way there. Add in FB integration with Amazon & ThinkGeek wishlists and you'll be further. Stop thinking monolithic, Scott, and you'll get closer to what the future will probably look like... but I don't see advertisers buying into a non-trivial amount of cash for this "targeted" model without some track record. People lie to services all the time. Just like there are gold farmers in Wow, there will be ad farmers in Futureme.
 
 
Nov 15, 2010
Paper from Yahoo and Microsoft entitled "Selling Privacy at Auction," published on November 8, 2010:

http://arxiv.org/pdf/1011.1375v1

 
 
Nov 15, 2010
But what makes Facebook so addictive is that it provides definite information about your past, things you cannot refute or deny.

Future me just conveys future plans, they could be anything. There're a thousand ideas that come and go in my head everyday and if I jot all of them down as future plans, they won't mean much. I don't think people who are not advertisers would care much about them either. What about those who write plans to intentionally mislead?

I can see why it would be attractive for advertisers but I don't think it'll ever reach the addictive and almost obsessive level of usage that Facebook has achieved.
 
 
 
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