Planning a break up? Don't do it on Facebook

Breakup Notifier alerts you when friends change relationship status. Dating -- and data mining -- will never be the same again.

When is that hottie finally going to dump that loser and hook up someone who can truly appreciate her? 

I’m sure my wife’s Facebook friends think this sort of thing all the time. Now they can find out in real time, thanks to the Breakup Notifier.

[ See also: Facebook ads use your face for free ]

Simply put, The BN keeps a constant watch on your friends’ relationships so you don’t have to. Just sign in to Facebook via the Breakup Notifier Web site and select the friends you want to monitor. If “Married” suddenly turns into “Single” or “Divorced” or “It’s complicated,” you’ll get an email – and be right there, flowers and candy in hand, ready to pounce.

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Breakup Notifier is simple, clever, free, and completely nonfattening. It doesn’t breach the privacy of anyone’s personal information, because they’ve already set their relationship info to be publicly available. Of course, the people you’re watching don’t know you’re watching them, but they wouldn’t in any case. You could the same thing manually, though if you choose more than a handful of hotties to watch you’d probably get nothing done all day.

(For the record: I’ve been playing with this toy for two days now, divorcing and remarrying various Facebook sub-personae, and it has yet to work correctly. Maybe I’m doing something wrong. Also, none of the Florida Bikini Models Who Are Probably Fat Old Guys in Disguise in my friends list have changed relationship status either. Damn.)

Thus the instant headline: “Breakup Notifier makes stalking easier.”

So why is this service vaguely disturbing? Because it points out what should be obvious but usually isn’t: The nature of publicly available information changes when you automate its collection.

Take, for example, the scads of very personal information that is mandated by law to be in the public record – property ownership, marriages and divorces, civil and criminal lawsuits, etc.  There are good reasons for this. You want to know whether six members of the city council who just approved a development project own the property they just spent millions of taxpayer dollars purchasing. You want to know whether the guy who just went on bended knee in front of you is already married, or if your kids’ teacher is a convicted felon.

The trouble is that these laws were designed for an age when getting at this information meant schlepping to the county courthouse, waiting for a clerk, rummaging through dusty file folders, and making Xerox copies. These laws did not anticipate an age when all this information would be digital, available in seconds, and sold again and again and again by data brokers to prospective employers, landlords, mates, or anyone else with $60 to spend.

Worse, you can’t opt out of having this information be public. It’s the law. You can ask data brokers not to sell it for a certain period of time. But you’ll have to do it with every single one of them, and after a certain period of time you’ll have to opt out all over again. Good luck trying to keep up.

Over the last year or two, companies have begun automating the collection of information from Facebook and other social networks. Scraping information off Facebook busts its terms of service, but as we’ve seen over the past year, amateurs and professionals alike have done this with impunity, and Facebook has been largely unable to stop it.

Breakup Notifier isn’t that bad. It only works if you and your friends agree to share information. But it’s a sign of apps to come. Today it’s your relationship status. Tomorrow it could be your religion, your politics, the music you listen to, the books you read, the food you eat, and so on. All of it prime cuts of meat for marketers. 

And once Facebook finally issues that IPO, it will be under intense pressure to boost revenue by parsing this information and selling it to advertisers. I predict we’ll start to see ads with some extremely personal hooks:

Just broken up with your girlfriend? Here’s half off on an eHarmony membership.

Facing a nasty divorce? Let Wolfram & Hart’s team of bloodthirsty attorneys come to your aid.

Going through an existential crisis? The Church of the Subgenius can help.

It’s going to get worse. Trust me. So if you’re planning to break up with somebody on Facebook, best do it now.

ITworld TY4NS blogger Dan Tynan got divorced on Facebook once, and some people still haven’t forgiven him for it. Experience his less serious side at eSarcasm (Geek Humor Gone Wild) or follow him on Twitter:@tynan_on_tech.

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