Three Questions for Conspire, the Email Traffic Analysis Networking Site

Conspire is a very interesting new networking tool that uses email traffic analysis to determine how strong are the connections between two people. Using this information it can determine the strongest connection path between a user and anyone else.

This approach addresses a well-known weakness of the market leader in professional networking, LinkedIn. Though one of your connections might be connected to someone interesting it sometimes happens that they do not really know each other. Some people are careful to only connect with people they know -- I do this myself -- but there are many others who send and accept random connections. Conspire does not rely on self-declared connections, determining from the frequency of contacts, if and how fast the person responds and other factors to measure the strength of a connection.

When you sign up for Conspire it asks for access to your Gmail account and analyzes this data using only message headers, so it does not store your message content. Once this processing has been done you can type in any name and then you will see the most efficient connection paths between you and the target. This is certainly an interesting idea, but there are some questions about the way it is currently implemented that could make some potential users wary.

PEOPLE DON'T LIKE GIVING ACCESS TO EMAIL ACCOUNTS. My business emails are not terribly exciting to outsiders, but like many people I am reluctant to give access to my email accounts unless there is a very compelling reason. I do not fear government surveillance but I do have a healthy concern that every additional access I grant gives criminals another weakness to probe. Even major software companies like Adobe have had their security compromised so we have to assume that everyone is potentially vulnerable. In the case of corporate business email accounts it is also quite likely that your company forbids allowing access in this way.

MOST PEOPLE USE MORE THAN ONE ACCOUNT. On a typical working day I use four separate email accounts for my business contacts. Most people have at least two addresses because they need to separate work from private or just to have a stable account for when they change jobs. At present Conspire only tracks my Gmail account so it misses most of my connections. For one partner in Europe I have also been assigned an email in their domain so all connections through that company are invisible to Conspire. You can see the results of this when you search for someone you have regular business contacts only to be told that there are no paths.

MANY OF MY GMAIL CONNECTIONS ARE IRRELEVANT. I often use email to exchange information with tax authorities and other organizations that are not related to my work. It might be true that I have regular contacts with the business account adviser at the bank or the international taxation experts at the French department of public finance. These people also have strong connections with other business people but I can hardly use them as stepping stones to approach other business people.

There are also some nagging doubts about the damage to your routine self-deception since Conspire, like Google Now, uncovers the stark reality of your relationships with other people rather than the way you prefer to see them. James Carmichael wrote in the Atlantic about this problem recently in Google Knows You Better Than Yourself, drawing attention to this growing problem. Maybe not all of our LinkedIn connections are as strong as we would like but a little self deception is good for your self esteem.

Conspire is still very new and I expect that some of these questions will be addressed in future upgrades, but in the meantime these uncertainties offset the brilliance of the idea and could deter many users. Corporate users in particular will be less than enthusiastic and this weakens the strength and utility of their social graph. On the other hand people questioned the value of LinkedIn in 2003 but now it has more than 300 million accounts and it has become almost indispensable for career minded people.

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