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Agents Invade the Address Book
Dec 16, 1996 :: Michael Sippey

"Who are you, and who were
you before, and what did you
think and what did you do?"
- Humphrey Bogart, Casablanca

I'm an alumnus of a small, liberal arts university in central New York state. I graduated with a class of 700 people, and after four years with them you'd think that I'd have at least recognized every one of them as they walked across the stage to shake the university president's hand.

Well, I didn't. I have a problem with the name/face thing, and if I had bothered to count, I would guess that I didn't recognize about 100 of them. No big deal, though...those people I didn't recognize I don't really have a reason to keep in touch with, now do I?

Think again. It turns out that someone wants me to remember them. And be remembered by them. And maybe get email from them.

Stuffed into my (physical) mailbox at school two weeks ago was a business-card sized advertisement for a web site. The card had a forgettable image (footprints in the sand), and some forgettable copy. Something about meeting lots of people "on your way to the top" and forgetting to take notes. Which, if you ask me, would be fairly foolish.

But, being a sucker for advertising, especially forgettable advertising, I figured I'd give it a shot. So I fired up my dispenser of choice, and loaded the cryptic URL: http://www.PlanetAll.com/. And what came up was one of the most, well, noteworthy sites I've seen in a while.

PlanetAll is a combination of an Internet White Pages and a global day planner on steroids. When you register, PlanetAll asks you for all sorts of information about your past, your present and your future: your college, your graduate school, what company you work for, what your interests are, etc. With that information, PlanetAll will cross-section you with its database and assist you in building a "personal sphere of influence." That "sphere" is really just a contact list with email addresses.

But wait, there's more. PlanetAll wants to connect people in meat-space as well as bit-space. First, if you add someone as a contact, and they in turn add you as a contact, then you'll get access to their "private" information -- their home phone number, their home address, their birthday, their spouse's name, and any other information that person wants to provide. Second, PlanetAll encourages you to enter your travel plans into their online day planner. This way, if you happen to be crossing paths with any of your "contacts," PlanetAll will send you an email notification.

I've never had much luck with Internet white pages services like Four11. They've rarely provided me with an email address that's actually current. Which is why when I went through the "affinity" process at PlanetAll, I was shocked to have the server return names and email addresses of dozens of classmates. Names of classmates that I can actually put a face to. So I dug a little deeper, to see who had finally figured out who had convinced all of these (less-than-completely-dialed-in) people I know to register with PlanetAll.

Get this. It turns out that PlanetAll was founded by a fellow Colgate alum. Warren Adams, also a graduate of Harvard Business School, has teamed up with some engineers from MIT to create the latest in "affinity" web sites. PlanetAll intends to expand into providing services for ride and apartment sharing, identifying new leads for sales and marketing executives, and job searching. They're also working with large affinity groups (universities, sports teams, etc.) to help them keep in closer touch with their "members." In fact, Colgate University is posting their alumni list on a trial basis in order to keep in touch with graduates.

Creepy much? The privacy issues this site raises are immense. Sure, PlanetAll can promise to keep your information "confidential," but are those home addresses, phone numbers, spouse name and birthdays (usually enough for any wily cracker to guess your password) coming across the wire in an encrypted session? No. And what's to keep someone from pretending they're Michael Sippey, and spoofing all of my friends into providing their personal vitals and travel schedules?

PlanetAll is the latest in a Pattie Maes-inspired attempt to use the 'net to connect like with like. MIT seems to be breeding agent sites like they're going out of style. With Firefly,, we have word of mouth music recommendation on a global scale. With PlanetAll, we now have people recommendation on a global scale, combined with enough privacy issues to make even the biggest cookie-lover shudder.

But the main beef I have with affinity sites like PlanetAll and Firefly is that they engender an dangerously false sense of community. Communities are not built around people that have similar music tastes, or happened to have gone to school together seven years ago. Communities are not built using "collaborative filtering."

Communities are built with connectedness, but not the kind you can order up from AT&T.

 

 

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