Startups walk the line between serendipity and creepy

The app world is getting a reality check, thanks to apps like Girls Around Me, Placeme or even Highlight. So far, when it comes to sharing data the benefits still outweigh the momentary gut check when your aunt references a party photo or your friends unexpectedly check you in to a place while you told your boss you were home sick. But in the past month one word has kept popping up to describe the current direction of social apps: creepy. Instead of SoLoMoCo or another dumb acronym, this one is an uh-oh.

The rise of creepy

I first heard someone describing an app as creepy when a friend of mine was referencing Highlight. After some older guy she didn’t know popped up as a connection and started eyeing her up at a bar, she quickly uninstalled it. Then at our Structure:Data conference in March I was sitting with an entrepreneur who dropped the word at least four times in a conversation about how people can use the data his firm is providing, “We have to make sure it doesn’t come across as creepy,” he said again and again.
It also popped up onstage and in the Q&A a few times. Then there’s the furor over how much people could see using the Girls Around Me app that has since been pulled from the App Store. And yesterday at the TechStars Cloud demo day in San Antonio, I had an entire conversation with a few founders about how creepy apps have become and how they are trying to steer clear of that creepiness themselves. The same day Placeme came out — the app Robert Scoble declared both “freaky” and “very cool” — I couldn’t help thinking, wait, What happened to serendipity?
But serendipity, or the unforeseen discovery of a pleasant moment, object or interaction, can be creepy’s good twin. Creepy is when the normal, humdrum minutiae of everyday takes a turn for the ominous, while serendipity strikes when it takes a turn for the best. All that stands between the two is . . . well, what? Is it better privacy controls? Smarter algorithms? Smaller social networks composed of real friends?
Amid the optimism and fun of sharing a location on Foursquare with your social networks, possibly getting a few coupons, and maybe bumping into a person you’d like to see just by popping into a nearby coffee shop is the same social and human dynamic that we have had to adapt to for years as we have moved from small villages to big cities. Now we live in one giant virtual metropolis. And thanks to cheap computing, a phone that can keep tabs on your current and future location, larger social networks, and commercial focus on sharing, we are having to figure out new social and ethical norms.

Where do you draw the line between serendipity and ewww?

So what makes an app creepy? And because the line from serendipity to creepy is different for everyone, how fat a line do I need to guard against? Or should I just step over that line and assume the masses will join me? Here are a few things we should be thinking about in this debate.

Transparency. Telling users the data you collect is a good first step. The next thing a company should do is tell users who it shares that data with. Just letting folks access your API may become the moral equivalent of operating a day care and hiring teachers without a background check. Yeah, I know it happens, but it kinda freaks people out, and the government tends to get involved when the worst happens. Since an app developer might not know how people will use its data, the question is, How should it react when people use that data maliciously? And how do developers even track for malicious use?
Consent. Consent is a difficult thing, especially because a person’s data gathered by one app can end up in a variety of places. Developers can then mash that data up to create a site like Please Rob Me or the Girls Around Me app. Once the data is out there it’s hard to know what people might do with it, so consent is closely tied to transparency. There can be no content without users’ knowing what they are consenting to.
The social element. This can be anything from giving people clear and easy ways to categorize their friends so only certain people can see their late-night spring break pics to making it clear or preventing others in a user’s social network to out them. I hate being tagged in photos, and I also hate when friends check me in places. Yes, there are ways to avoid those things showing up, but right now the needle keeps moving and it’s hard for a user to keep track of the ever-expanding effort by social networks to share your data to generate more activity on the network or just provide value.
Additionally the social element is expanding by connecting you with people who know people. For example, Highlight comes across as creepy in part because it shares your physical location with friends of friends. A friend of a friend might be another friend, or it could be the creepy physical trainer your BFF friended under duress.
Let your users go. Some apps and services are better at this than others, but if users uninstall the apps, delete their profile, or sunder that relationship, what happens to their data? What do you tell them happens to their data versus what really happens? For most users the expectation after an app deletion is that like an ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend, you two are done. Everybody’s stuff (including their data and old pictures, etc.) are returned (or destroyed), and you don’t go around telling others that y’all are still together by leaving information on the site.
Fundamentally the problem is people. The apps just give those who are already creepy tools to become better creeps. But having the discussion about limits on applications or APIs, educating users, and creating easy-to-use-and-understand privacy policies is essential. Much like people learned to lock their doors as their social spheres got bigger and the government began intruding more in people’s lives if they wanted to hold certain types of jobs, we will adapt to the changes SoLoMoCo is bringing to our culture, and apps will deliver more serendipity and less creepy. But we do have to start talking about it.