Spock: The Logic of People Search in a Web 2.0 World

In the first part of this two-part review of Spock, the people search engine, I showed you how to search on Spock, what kinds of results it returns, and walked you through a profile. I also pointed out some of its conveniences, like the ability to forward results via email in just one click. Now I’m going to delve more deeply into Spock’s web 2.0 features.

In true web 2.0 fashion, you can add stuff to a person’s profile, and vote it up or down. You can also delete certain items. Let’s take another look at William Shatner’s profile for an example.

This man was the captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise and he has no related people?! That doesn’t sound right somehow. Fortunately, it’s also fixable. When you click on the related people section for someone who has no people listed as being related to them, this is what you get:

If you want to add someone, it’s as easy as typing in the blank boxes. Spock even helps you:

It takes a little while for the image to settle down, but the drop down did finally show the right name and image. For the box indicating the relationship, Spock also makes suggestions, but you don’t have to follow them; I added Walter Koenig at one point as Shatner’s “former navigator.” If no one else has voted on this person one way or another, and you’re the one who added the relationship, you can remove it easily by voting (I’ll explain voting in just a bit).

Adding tags and websites to a profile is even easier. On the right end of the gray bar for the titles “Tags” and “On the Web,” you’ll notice a white text box and a green button that says either “Add Tag” or “Add Website” as appropriate. Just put in the text, hit the add button, and you’re good to go. Again, if you’re the first person who has added the link or the tag, you can remove it by voting it down.

{mospagebreak title=Voting and Removing}

In a person’s profile, next to every tag, every website, and every related person, there is a blue triangle. When you click that blue triangle you gain access to the ability to vote. You can cast a yes or no vote as to whether that particular item is relevant to that person. Here’s an example for the Spock robot (yes, Spock has a profile, albeit a fairly skimpy one, for its “mascot”):

Yes you can see who else voted on a particular tag by clicking the link. This isn’t the only way you can see that either. If you go to the all tags view (as I explained in the first part), on the right hand side you’ll see a small box with the names of everyone who voted on those tags and how many times they voted. If you hover over any one particular tag, the names of those who voted on that tag are highlighted in yellow in the box.

What if you have added a tag, website, or relationship to a profile and you decide later that it isn’t appropriate? If no one else has voted on it, you can remove it by clicking on the blue triangle next to it and changing your vote. For relationships, it’s completely removed without a trace. For tags and websites, however, it stays as a negative tag or negative website (in this case, negative simply means that it was voted down) and can be accessed via a link in the appropriate section that will “show tags with negative scores” or “show websites with negative scores.” If there’s a way to make a tag or website permanently disappear without a trace, I haven’t found it yet.

Just as a side note, Spock doesn’t seem to be automatically checking for duplicates yet. I accidentally added a duplicate URL to Shatner’s websites, and later voted it down to “delete” it. It didn’t have the same title showing as the one it duplicated (“williamshatner.com” instead of “Official website”); I don’t know whether that had any effect or not. Spock is, after all, still in private beta, so they may add some kind of de-duping feature later.

Here is an image of a fully-expanded drop down for voting on a tag. You’ll notice that I already voted on this tag, along with one other person:

You can see the number of votes that particular tag received, whether they were positive or negative, who voted, and how long ago they voted. This can give you a good feeling for the relevance of certain tags and descriptions of a person. I hope that Spock has some very good spam controls in place for this though. Otherwise, the profiles of famous people may have to be locked; I didn’t add “big ego” as a tag to William Shatner’s profile, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t sorely tempted.

{mospagebreak title=Getting Personal}

While perusing Shatner’s profile, I spotted an interesting feature; I’m still not entirely certain how it works. If you click on the link for contact info, this is what you get:

Now the JavaScript box I popped up by clicking on the link that says “What are private notes?” The answer was “Private notes record information that only you can see. Not even William Shatner has access to these notes.” If I understand this correctly, I can make my own notes about someone, and only I can see them – rather like an online address book, but on steroids.

It’s a nice little feature, and I could see it being used in many different ways. In his review, Tim O’Reilly talks about how his job involves finding the right person to write on a topic, or give a talk at a conference, and how he and his colleagues have to keep track of people. “When we’re planning the invitation list for an event, we’re often poring over a spreadsheet – and asking ourselves, who was that again?” The one-page profile can jog your memory – and if you’ve added some private notes, you can approach that person in a way that jogs their memory too. “Hi Matt? Tim here. Remember that panel you moderated for us on the different kinds of search engine spam for that conference last July in San Diego? We’re doing one in Chicago in June this year, and we were wondering…” Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but you get the idea.

More mundanely, you could use the feature to make notes about applicants you’ve had for a particular job, or people you might like to recruit for particular projects. With a little thought it’s easy to figure out multiple uses.

Now if you click on the link for contact info and the person has claimed their profile (more on that in a bit), in addition to the grey box you get a white box for public information. This is information that the owner of the profile has decided to make public. As near as I can tell, they can make certain information completely public, and choose to reveal other information after they have added you as a Favorite (and there’s a button in the white box labeled “Request to be added as Favorite”).

{mospagebreak title=Settings and Claiming a Profile}

You may remember from last time that I mentioned several links that are in the upper right  hand corner of every page on Spock: your name (Terri Wells in my case), Favorites, History, Settings, and Logout. If you see a profile you want to always get to easily, you can add it to your Favorites by clicking on the star next to their name. Then when you click on your Favorites, Spock will display all of them in much the same way it would show listings from its own results. Judging from the screen shot I took of Spock’s home page, it will also show them on your home page after you’ve started choosing Favorites. (That may change, though; a quick check of Spock’s home page with me logged in showed popular searches where my list of Favorites — all one of them — used to be).  

The History link shows you every profile you’ve looked at, at least in the last few days. I’ve only been playing with Spock that long (and actively for less time of course), so that’s all I can say for certain. Again, you get the same amount of information you would get if these came up in the search results, and of course you can click back to the profiles. It also tells you how recently you looked at the profile; the list is displayed from most recent to least recent, and at the bottom of each entry it tells you when you last viewed the profile.

The Settings link is interesting. It lets you change your password, of course. You can also adjust your email accounts and settings. This is useful because Spock assumes every email address belongs to a different person, so if others invite you to join Spock with a different address, you’ll end up with multiple Spock profiles – which kind of defeats Spock’s whole purpose of having one profile per person, and having it be as complete as they can make it. Spock includes this warning to those who think they can add bogus email accounts: “If you add an email that does not belong to you, the owner of that email address can request your Spock password and take control of your Spock account.” It’s nice to know Spock is on top of this.

The Settings link lets you handle two other things: adult tag preferences and finding friends in your address book. The former is a radio button that lets you decide whether or not to let people tag you with adult tags, and by default it is set to not permit this. The latter is easier to explain with an image:

Basically, you can import your web address book from just about any service. What if you don’t have a web address book? As you can barely make out at the bottom (my fault, not theirs), you can also import your Outlook and Outlook Express address book, if you’re connecting with Microsoft IE 5.5 or higher. As it happened, I was using FireFox, so that wasn’t going to work for me (I have IE on my system, so if I really wanted to import the address book it wouldn’t have been a big deal). At any rate, it looks like Spock is shooting to be a one-stop shop as far as a network to help people find each other. I know I had great fun finding some people I knew but never expected to find in Spock, just from playing around with tags!

Not surprisingly, when I did a search for Terri Wells, eight of them came up. One of them was me. You can indeed claim a profile. Below the box in the profile that holds the picture and some vital information is a link that says “Claim: this is me!” When I clicked that link, this is what came up:

Well…I did try it. The first two times it didn’t work. The following day, when I tried it again, it did work – though Spock had some issues at first and I had to check back later. I’m not kidding; after I clicked the link on the screen after it finished processing, it said “Not Good. Looks like Spock’s having some issues (poor Spock). Please check back in a bit.” To Spock’s credit, everything was under control in less than 10 minutes. I hope Spock gets better about this though; it’s the kind of problem you can understand a company having at the private beta stage, but it will have to be fixed before Spock goes past this stage. It’s worth noting, by the way, that Spock has a feedback link; I hope they keep that after Spock gets opened to the world.

As the owner of my profile, I can set and change everything that appears in the box that shows my picture and vital statistics; I can also edit the blurb about myself that appears below that picture. I can add public information about myself (email address, IM name, and phone number) and I can choose to make this information publicly visible or visible just to my favorites. I can’t add private information about myself, just about other people – which makes sense when you consider how private information is supposed to be used. I can, of course, do all of the other things that I could do to any other profile (add tags, websites, vote on these items, etc).

As you would expect from any site that collects personal information in one way or another, Spock has a privacy policy. It specifically states that “Spock only collects information and indexes results that are publicly available online. Spock does not crawl, mine, search, or index password protected websites, private websites, or websites that specifically request not to be crawled by search engines….Spock will attempt to not display any personally identifiable information. In cases where this information is available publicly online, Spock will make every attempt to avoid showing this information on the search results.”

So in that sense, Spock is even stricter than many other sites out there. I have to wonder, though: you can do all sorts of things to a profile that hasn’t been claimed. I didn’t play around much with profiles that have been claimed. What happens in that case? Do owners of profiles get notified when someone adds something to their profile? Do they get veto power over what goes into their profile? Can they restrict who has the ability to add things to their profile? It’s a tremendous can of worms, and even a certain green-blooded Starfleet officer would have quite a difficult time navigating it.

Obviously, I have a few reservations about Spock. On the other hand, I don’t think it’s possible to create a people search engine without raising some privacy and control issues. And there are many things that Spock does very well: the logic of one person per profile; the way it harnesses web 2.0 tagging and voting; the way it tries to make it easy for you to import your address books so they’re a one-stop shop; and perhaps best of all, the fact that you can make private notes about people that no one but you can see. Also, if it can solve the potential spamming issues, Spock is a search engine that will get better the more it is used, as Tim O’Reilly observed. So when it comes to people search, this search engine may well be on the right track. Here’s hoping that Spock will live long and prosper.

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