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Technology: In living Color

March 23, 2011 |  5:34 pm

ColorPeople on Facebook and other social networks are largely confined to their own circles of friends and acquaintances. They have no visibility into what the people they don't know are doing online, even if those people are attending the same events, working at the same company or living in the same neighborhood.

On Wednesday, a Silicon Valley start-up called Color went public with a free application for iPhones and Androids that breaks down those boundaries. The app, also called Color, automatically shares photos, videos and text that users are creating on their smartphones with every other Color user nearby. It also automatically creates elastic networks of users who frequent the same places -- neighbors, for example, or co-workers -- and shares photos, videos and text automatically among them.

My colleague Jessica Guynn will go into more detail about the company and the app on The Times' Technology blog. Having seen the app, I have to say it's mind-boggling. I also have to confess that it freaks me out.

Here's a scenario. Imagine going to a party where there are several other Color users, none of whom you know. The pictures and videos you collect on your smartphone will not only be the ones you snapped but also the ones captured by the other Color users on the scene -- a perspective that Color refers to as "multi-lens."

Just as important, the pictures you take act as an introduction of sorts for you to the other Color users who are nearby. The material you contribute to the shared electronic scrapbook will be accompanied by a link back to your public Color feed -- the material you've collected from previous events -- as long as you're in the area. When you leave, whatever you captured at the event stays with every Color user who was there, but the rest of your Color photos, videos and text become inaccessible.

If you come into proximity with a person often enough, he or she will automatically be added to your personal network, sharing all your Color uploads. (That person will be removed automatically too, if you stop crossing paths.) You can block individuals whom you don't want following you, but if you really want to restrict who you share something with, don't run the app.

Color Chief Cxecutive Bill Nguyen, a serial entrepreneur whose last venture was the cloud-based music service Lala, said the point is to break down the social barriers that the Web imposes. "This will help you get to know better the other people in your life," he said -- the people around you, not just the people you've added as Facebook friends.

The company plans to sell targeted advertising, which could quickly cross the line from "personalized" to "creepy," depending on what information Color provides to advertisers. If you're inclined to be troubled by the thought of software collecting information about you, the advertising possibilities of the app will probably make you cringe.

Then again, I can't decide whether the whole thing should make me cringe. That's because the sharing is involuntary. You choose when to run the app, but once you do, anyone near you can see your feed and vice versa. Run Color often enough in the same place, and you're automatically plugged into the feeds of others who habituate it.

As Nguyen puts it, "Imagine a diary ... that's written by all the people around you, not just you." Now imagine everyone reading your diary.

There's something both narcissistic and voyeuristic about much of what happens online, especially in the context of social media systems that invite people to share even the most mundane developments in their personal lives. Online TV entrepreneur Josh Harris may be the ultimate miner of these veins; consider, for example, his experiments with living under the constant watch of webcams. I can't tell whether Color is the antithesis of this phenomenon or the ultimate expression of it.

-- Jon Healey

Credit: Color.com

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