More thoughts on the open vs. closed data debate

My parents visited last month and stayed for a few weeks. My dad used to work in the UK when I was born, so they knew a lot of people back then. They returned to India when I was quite young, and other than the annual Christmas card exchange with a couple of people, they lost touch with a number of people they would have liked to keep in contact with over the years (heck, I’ve lost touch with lots of people I went to university with myself – Zuck hadn’t had his brainwave in that Harvard dorm room yet).

As we had some time during their visit, my sister and I went about trying to find some of their friends from three decades ago, going on nothing more than names and addresses as they stood back in the 1980’s. I went analog and tried the Yellow Pages, but found that the names we were looking for had dozens of duplicates, with most stopping at listing an initial, likely due to privacy concerns (I don’t blame them). We knew the addresses we had were way out-of-date so that was a doomed exercise from the start.

Then my sister basically put her faith in Page, Brin and Zuck and lo and behold, through a combination of a basic Google search combined with 192.com, and then pasting that information into Facebook, she was able to find my parents’ friends’ children that they hadn’t seen or heard from in over 30 years. An introductory message on Facebook later, memories were revived and numbers exchanged, and before they left last week my parents were reunited with their friends from all those years ago.

This got me thinking about this whole debate about privacy and searchability we’re so into these days as a generation. I’m not a fan of Facebook, and I go incognito on Google more often than not after Ghostery showed up how I’m being stalked by ad exchanges and tracking sites, but because my parents’ friends’ children on Facebook aren’t as paranoid, we were able to get in touch with them and therefore able to give my parents a couple of really memorable afternoons during their stay here, not to mention the fact that they can now go back to staying in touch with their friends.

As ensconced as I am in the marketing industry, it’s easy to forget that privacy comes with a price as much as openness does. I’m not saying that advertisers and marketers have an inalienable right to our personal data – of course not – but where the motivations for establishing boundaries between open and closed data aren’t clear (for the general public at least), the advantages and disadvantages also remain unclear. If there’s one thing I think every single platform and service provider should do, it’s making those tradeoffs amply clear at the outset. It’s why I’m a fan of value-add services like those offered by the Amex and Foursquare partnership and Cardlytics and why services that make this data exchange a core business model, like Flamingo, really excite me.

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