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On the Media: Social media in the spotlight

JustSpotted.com launched last week with a promise to open up a new frontier, showing “what your favorite celebrities are up to and where they were last spotted.” The website, with its world map and pop-up photos, joins a handful of others actively stalking and pinpointing the whereabouts of the rich and famous.

This is progress in the media today, where celebrity sites proliferate like breathless teenagers at a Justin Bieber concert and privacy concerns are raised only by the relentlessly retro old school. At least that’s the view from potentates of the tech industry and the many bright young engineers who chase their venture dollars.

Something larger and more revolutionary is going on, they suggest. So just get on board.

“The world is a very different place than it was,” JustSpotted co-founder AJ Asver, 24, told me in an interview from his San Francisco office. “If you look at the evolution, people are far more open than they used to be…. It’s only realistic, if you are a public person, you are going to be caught up in this exposure.”

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Asver, an Oxford-trained engineer, and his twentysomething co-founders are surfing a wave of social media innovation, with sites allowing participants to play video games, trade players in fantasy sports leagues, post dollar-by-dollar accounts of what they spent at the mall and obsess on their idols’ every move. (“Just saw eva mendez [sic] at cvs,” read one JustSpotted update. “She has horrible skin but She’s still cute.”)

The business of being social online has never been so big, as evidenced by the fact that Silicon Valley venture capital outfit Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers last week launched a $250-million fund to provide even more start-up money for social media entrepreneurs.

But as entrepreneurs and much of the public seem ready to push forward, some artists and intellectuals have begun to turn off their GPS locators, unfriend Facebook and dig in their heels. They’re powering up a discussion that has been a long time coming.

“The Social Network” has turned the debate over the boundaries of social media into water cooler conversation. The movie about Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg offered a not-so-subtle profile of the pitfalls of new media, featuring the young man who created a social media giant, but not a social life for himself.

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The movie debuted about the time that Malcolm Gladwell, writing in the New Yorker, suggested that hype surrounding the political power of the social media had been overblown. George Packer, another writer who appears in the New Yorker, said in a recent interview that he disdained social media not out of any sense of superiority but simply because he worried he would be powerless to use the sites only in moderation.

Indeed, in an experiment at Bournemouth University in Great Britain last week, students who forcibly separated themselves from new technology explained how bereft they felt after just 24 hours without their gadgets. Some described in later essays how much they liked doing new things, like reading novels in print form. It made them realize how distracted and unproductive they became living online.

The college campus experience makes a nice analogy for how consumers adapt to social media. Students arrive for their freshman year brimming with energy and expectation, ready to join every group, hit every party and try every new experience. The dorm room remains constantly open.

By the time they are upperclassmen, the college kids have worn down a little and become more selective. They’d prefer to party mostly with friends. And they might even consider some quiet time and shutting the door for a few hours of shuteye.

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Likewise, early adopters have embraced sites like Gowalla and Foursquare with relish, plotting meetings with friends and people they want to know. Blippy.com acolytes invite the site to troll their personal records, from Netflix, Amazon and even their checking accounts, in order to post detailed accounts of what they are buying and how much it cost.

According to “Zuckerberg’s Law,” people will routinely be sharing twice as much information as they shared the year before.

No doubt some users will remain dorm freshmen forever, enamored with their multiple commitments and platoons of online acquaintances. But others will inevitably retreat, settling on the sites that require the least amount of time in return for the maximum information, insight or real-life connections.

Consumers demonstrated their uneasiness at wide-open networks with their rebellion this year against Facebook settings that put more of their private profile information in the public domain. The company quickly compromised to make it easier to keep some information secret.

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Andrew Keen, a onetime Silicon Valley entrepreneur who is researching a book on the loss of privacy, said he has been alarmed that there have not been more protests. He pointed to a recent Wall Street Journal investigation that found data-trolling companies like RapLeaf compile extraordinarily personal information about people, then share it with advertisers without the consumers’ knowledge.

“There is something very dystopian and eerie about this,” Keen said, whose book will be titled “Digital Vertigo.” “It’s supposed to be good: the more you reveal the better. But in some cases privacy and secrecy can have a value. We are losing that.”

When Gawker launched a page four years ago devoted to tracking celebrities, George Clooney suggested stars cripple it by planting fake sightings of themselves. The actor may have won some sympathy. But the page remains online, though not raging with activity. And many people argue that celebrities must give up some privacy for the extraordinary privileges they enjoy.

JustSpotted’s Asver claims not a single celebrity has asked to be taken off JustSpotted. To the contrary, he said, several have contacted the site asking to have their movements mapped.

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Maybe. But in a world where a gay young man gets exposed to the world via video posted online by his college roommate and ends up killing himself, more people ought to be asking questions about boundaries.

In the meantime, JustSpotted continues to scrape the Web for tweets, Facebook status updates and other morsels that help it track thousands of stars, politicians and athletes—relying on the credibility of the masses. If it can find enough traffic for the sightings and related gossip it plans to aggregate, the site will try to sell ads or conjure another source of revenue.

JustSpotted has laid its hands on enough startup funding to grow from three to 13 employees in just six weeks. “Everyone is super-excited to be involved in this company,” Asver said.

Other opportunities might not have the popular potential, but it’s hard not to wonder what all these bright young minds might do if they trained their attention elsewhere.

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“If we used the same energy we put into spotting Jake Gyllenhaal with Taylor Swift,” comedian Andy Borowitz wrote the other day on Twitter, “we’d have Bin Laden by now.”

james.rainey@latimes.com

Twitter: latimesrainey


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