Social media search: A stalker's paradise?

Don't look now, but you're being watched. And now that I've signed up for, I could be the one watching you.

Spokeo is a search engine that uses email addresses to find people across the social Web. Give the site your log-on info for Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo Mail, or AOL - or just upload your personal address book; Spokeo will scour 41 social networks and collect all information associated with each email address. Blog entries, Linked In profiles, Flickr photostreams, Twitter tweets, Digg comments, Amazon wish lists - and a whole lot more - all on one tidy little Web page. And every time they add new content, Spokeo lets you know.

In other words, for just $3 to $5 a month Spokeo gives you the ability to stalk near-total strangers in new and fascinating ways.

I don't know about you, but my email address book is filled with people I couldn't pick out of a police lineup. I've probably met fewer than 2 percent of these people; I've spoken on the phone to maybe 1 out of 20. But suddenly I have this window into their lives that's, well, just a little bit creepy.

For instance: There's a senior PR rep for Yahoo whom I met once five years ago. Now I know what she looks like nine months pregnant and what color she's painted her child's nursery (thank you, Flickr). There's the former director of communications for a huge Web company who also apparently frequents discussion forums for the Paranormal Research Society. (Remember: The truth is out there.) Then there's this person named Indigo - I haven't the foggiest idea who she is or how she got into my address book - but I know she's a freak for The Beatles and the soundtrack from Juno.

Suddenly I have insights into the musical, literary, and political tastes of a whole swath of people I wouldn't know what to say to in an elevator (though I guess we could start with their musical, literary, and political tastes).

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On the other hand, Spokeo helped me find two old friends on Facebook and MySpace whom I'd been unable to locate using Google. So it's not all bad.

The odd thing is that Spokeo isn't breaking any privacy rules. If you made your profiles private and I'm not on your guest list, it won't sneak me past the bouncers at the door. But if like most people you've posted stuff online without thinking twice about who can see it, Spokeo will find it - and by extension so will I, if our electronic paths have crossed even briefly.

Despite having been out in the wild for more than year, the service is still a little bumpy. Like every other people search engine I've ever used, it occasionally lumps two entirely different people under the same identity. Some import functions simply don't work or quit midway through with no error message. It has trouble parsing certain passwords.

And despite the fact it's a paid service, Spokeo doesn't seem to offer any kind of customer support. I sent a half-dozen questions last week via its blog contact page; I'm still waiting for the first response. (Though given that the Spokeo site has been up and down all weekend, they may be busy putting out bigger fires.) If you're going to take people's money, though, you ought to answer their questions.

The emergence of tools like Spokeo (and other, less-nimble people search engines like Spock, ZabaSearch, Pipl, and Wink) means we've hit a tipping point in the grand social media experiment.

I'm calling it the Fishbowl Moment (tm).

For me, this oddly discomfiting mix of public and private, professional and personal, started with Facebook. Now it's spreading across the Net. Judging by recent activity on my Twitter and Facebook accounts, "normal" people - i.e., those who barely know how to use a computer - are now flocking to social media sites. And though in most cases you can exercise control over the information you share and whom you share it with, most folks won't bother because it's too much hassle. In the age of massive data aggregation, everyone is ripe for the plucking.

Once, a long time ago, I entered a small bathroom at my place of employment - and came upon the Big Boss with his BVDs around his knees. "Don't get up," I quipped.

Actually, that's not quite true. I quickly closed the door and we both pretended it never happened. But it's an image I'll take with me to the grave. That's how I feel now about Spokeo and other social media aggregators. I get that squishy uncomfortable feeling I'm seeing stuff I really should not be seeing - but I'm unable to stop looking.

Welcome to the Internet 2009: An enormous fishbowl, where anyone who wants to can see everything you do.

Hope you enjoy your swim.

When not stalking via Spokeo Dan Tynan stocks his blogs, Culture Crash and Tynan on Tech.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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