The great social networking swindle of 2007

The problem with MySpace's 'get big quick' philosophy

Sorry Bridget, Claire, Monica, and Shannon. Thanks but no thanks, Dixie, Lola, Shana and Zara. The same goes for Aimee, Willie, Lolita, Cassandra and the three dozen other "people" who sent me bogus MySpace friend requests in the past 24 hours.

MySpace spam isn't new, but over the last two days something has gone seriously wrong with its junk mail filters. I've been buttered in script-kiddie affiliate spam, and I bet I'm not alone. (Here's a riddle: What does it say about your site's security when you can get gamed by somebody stupid enough to send the same 'friend' invitation 40+ times to each person?)

This is the kind of stuff that happens when your entire business philosophy can be summed up in three words -- 'get big quick' -- with no thought to what happens next. When you get big, so do your problems. And if you haven't put stuff in place to catch them early, you never will.

So I find last week's news that MySpace is bringing the chips and dips to Google's OpenSocial party a little chilling. I'm all for open standards and cross-platform compatibility. It would be nice to connect my button-down business colleagues on Linked In with my hang-loose pals on Friendster, even if it's only to throw a sheep at them.

But do not be fooled by the 'open' rhetoric. Pay no attention to the nice man in the Google polo shirt. This isn't about freedom, this is about data. Social networks are really just rich deep pools of personal information, and everybody wants to cast out a hook and reel you in. Marketers are salivating at the chance to sell you something based on that silly profile you filled out in a drunken haze one night on Bebo.com. If they can get at it simply by having you complete a stupid movie quiz or play a silly game, so much the better.

The problem: If they can get at this data, what's to stop the next dumb-as-a-fence-post affiliate spammer from doing the same? Nothing more than a few bland assurances that "we take your privacy very seriously" and "the security of your personal information is our top priority." We know how well those policies work in the real world.

New York Times columnist Randall Stosser sums up Google's motto as "Social Will Be Everywhere." Yes, and so is influenza. But every time somebody halfway round the world sneezes, I don't want to catch a cold.

If Google and the social networks of the world really want to do something useful, open, and cross platform, how about fixing the security problem first, then move on to the sheep tossing? Otherwise, social networks will quickly become just another social disease.

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Robert X. Cringely

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