Because We Can


Back in 2005, I wrote about the A9 search engine owned by Amazon, and its plan to differentiate itself by not only showing maps of local businesses, but photos of storefronts as well. To accomplish this, A9 sent fleets of robot-controlled camera trucks down the shopping streets of major cities. While I questioned the value of these photos, I did give A9 high marks for creativity. I also wondered aloud if there wasn't some product placement money changing hands, since a large percentage of the photos I viewed were obscured by UPS trucks making deliveries.

The A9 search engine hasn't exactly thrived in the interim, but that's done nothing to cool the Web 2.0 frenzy around photography, both aerial and street- level. If there's a geographic aspect to a website these days, expect a big part of the user interface to include photos, the coolest being to plot geographic points on an aerial photo rather than a map.

The novelty of looking at grainy satellite images of rooftops wore off quickly, and the race is on to get photos that are up-close and personal. Google is already there with a product called Street View that provides street level photography. It's already creating a bit of a stir on the privacy front. A New York Times article today describes the experience of a woman who found that Street View delivered a crystal clear photo of her cat sitting in her second floor apartment window. That's a little creepy, but it can be possibly be written off to Google needing to get its camera angles right. But there is no shortage of others who want to go further.

One example, a new service called Fatdoor, released recently as a beta, wants to tell you about your neighbors. It does this with extremely low level aerial photography (ever wonder what's behind your neighbor's fence?), overlaid with data from InfoUSA that puts names on each home. It's unquestionably a nice piece of programming, but it's another site that I think has a big CQ -- creepy quotient.

The notion behind FatDoor is apparently that people prefer to learn the names of their neighbors from a website, and want to post and exchange information about each other online, as opposed to walking outside and ... gasp ... talking to them. Call it a cross between Zillow and FaceBook with all the loosey- goosey accuracy issues of Wikipedia. If there's a business here, it's driven by some very sad social commentary.

The new capabilities being provided by Web 2.0 technology are marvelous indeed, but too much talent is being expended doing things "because we can" as opposed to "because there is a need." That's not only a waste of resources, but ill-considered aggregations of visual and textual data is sure to lead to unanticipated consequences. This rush to be the coolest comes with not inconsiderable risk attached. It's a lesson to us all to stay focused on solving problems in the marketplace. If we don't, we run the risk of creating problems for ourselves. And if the idea of building websites and whole businesses not anchored to real needs conjures up dot com memories, then 'nuf said.

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