PS4 socials all the gaming, says Sony; but why?

With PlayStation 4, Sony joins the cavalcade of companies sacrificing your privacy to replace the profits lost thanks to plummeting hardware prices. Fun, but at what cost?
Written by Stilgherrian , Contributor

Amongst all the pizzazz, pretention, and polygons of today's PlayStation4 plugfest sat something slightly sinister: Social. Sony's new console will be "seamlessly interconnected" with your social life, said Mark Cerny, PS4's lead system architect, with such features as the ability to stream video of your gameplay for others to watch. Interaction will generally involve players' real names and profile pictures, except "when anonymity is important". Who decides that is unclear.

It's easy to see why Sony is doing this. "Social all the things" is the current orthodoxy for ... everything, really.

Social media and then social networks resulted in a bunch of multibillion-dollar companies — plus ten thousand bunches of complete failures, of course, but don't mention them because it'd spoil the narrative. So if the buzzword "social" worked for YouTube and Facebook, we can all be billionaires by socialing everything else, right? Therefore, social travel, social TV, social banking, and all the rest.

Now in many cases, "social" means little more than pushing out information about what you're doing to Facebook and Twitter in exchange for basic authentication mechanisms and a "Like" button. When it's done that way, Facebook and Twitter win.

Gaming is already social, though, so giving players some tools to find like-minded individuals for more group polygon fun is a plus for Sony. The real price of hardware is constantly falling, at least once it's out of the initial extort-the-gullible period, so the absolute value of profit margins falls too. Social adds another revenue stream in and of itself, more player-friends per player means more gaming time, and it all adds up.

But Sony's approach started to sound creepy when Cerny said that PS4 can "can get to know you, and bring you closer to the game and other experiences". What other experiences are these, exactly? And apparently, "if we know enough about you", then Sony can figure out what games you want and they "can be loaded and ready to go before you even click the button".

So at one level, Sony has decided that on PlayStation Network, we'll reveal our identities. Search Twitter to see how many women (and men) thought that was a good idea, given gaming's [cough] female-supportive culture. Remember when Google announced that Google+ would demand real names?

At another level, Sony has decided that PlayStation will become part of what I've called "the great Facebook experiment". And that's the elephant in the room.

Over the years, core principles for handling personal information responsibly have been established. Here in Australia, they've been codified as the National Privacy Principles (NPP). The first is that you don't collect data unless you need it to deliver the service. The second is that you don't use or disclose that information for some secondary purpose without permission.

Last week, much was made of Google Play sending personal details to app developers. Sure, Google should anonymise the email addresses. But merchants all over the web get much more information about you all the time because the credit card companies demand it — so that information has to be collected to deliver the service.

What Sony and every other "social" company is doing is different. They're redefining the service to include the mapping of your social network. Suddenly, much more information is needed for this primary purpose, and it can be made non-optional.

NPP number four is about data security for all this personal information. Well, hasn't Sony got a grand track record there — and now they want to store even more.

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