Over the last few weeks I've started to suffer from Four Square fatigue. After all, Four Square is a lot of work. To get the benefits of Four Square, you need to proactively check in wherever you go. And, while each checkin requires a relatively small amount of work, in the aggregate, it takes real effort to make the most of the Four Square experience. Would it be better if Four Square just checked you in automatically any time you lingered at a location for more than 15 or 20 minutes? Or does that cross the privacy line for most of us?
The challenges of Four Square have gotten me thinking more broadly about privacy on the web. On the one hand, the less proactive input a service requires, the less friction there is in maintaining its usefulness. Automatic Four Square naturally will produce more data, on average, than does a Four Square that requires proactive behavior. And, for many, the Four Square experience would be greatly enhanced. On the other hand, when data is being passively collected by a service, there are natural privacy concerns that come with that data collection. How many of us want our every daily stop published to the Web? So perhaps automatic Four Square would turn away more users than it would attract.
This privacy vs. utility debate is not a new conversation. You may recall the uproar in the early days of the Web around personalization. There were those (perhaps there still are) who were deeply concerned about the collection and retention of data for the purpose of personalizing the online experience. Yet few of us today find it concerning to receive Amazon's product recommendations or Ticketmaster's concert reminders. In fact, if you are like me, you are more than willing to provide scads of personal data to enhance your online experience.
Personalization has evolved over time. In the early days of the Web, you had to explicitly state a set of preferences. The Internet only thought you liked the things you said you liked. Now services like Amazon and Netflix quietly collect preference data from the things you buy and watch. And, of course, ad networks collect tons of data by watching where you go on the Web, what you click on, where you linger on a page. Using this data, advertisers are increasingly sophisticated about the advertisements they choose to present to you as you wander the Web.
While there are still those who find ad targeting intrusive, if you are like me, you are happy to have ads for things you actually care about (if only spammers were as sophisticated -- or do they know something I don't about my coming erectile disfunction). As with personalization, consumer acceptance of ad targeting has been an evolution. Targeting has grown more precise, more granular and, as a result, more valuable to consumers.  As consumers have seen the value of that targeting, they have grown increasingly accepting of the things they had previously feared.
We have all seen that consumers are willing -- often times happy -- to trade privacy for utility. I know that I am. And, while Mark Zuckerburg's statement that privacy is a generational concern was controversial, I think he is absolutely right about that. The coming generations of consumers may not abandon the idea of privacy in its entirety, but they will certainly have very different views of the appropriate balance between privacy and utility. That balance has already clearly shifted in the direction of utility and I believe the trend will continue.
To some this will be viewed as a warning -- a cry of the coming privacy apocalypse. I don't see it that way. As technologies and standards evolve, doors open to new products and services. We are on the verge of an explosion of new ideas.
Automatic Four Square and its progeny are coming. And I, for one, am excited about that.
 Obviously there are extremes of everything. It is perhaps too "granular" to start seeing ads for Prozac after buying a book on depression, or ads for funerary services after sending an email about the passing of a family member. But, to my mind, businesses are ill served by crossing those lines. The marketplace will vote loud and clear -- one need look no further than Facebook's beacon program -- and keep non-market behavior in check. The advantage of markets, of course, is that they correct for evolving standards. Perhaps there will come a time when consumers consider it perfectly appropriate to receive advertisements for funerary services upon the passing of a loved one. When that time comes, there will be real utility in the coffin banner ads and consumers will be happy to see them. Why should current standards of appropriateness impede such "progress."