May 16, 2008
Debating Facebook’s data portability move (Facebook Connect) is like debating AOLs web strategy back in the day. Their strategy is clearly to create a rarefied ecosystem where users (read: facebook) are in complete control of the ‘approved’ content and interactions. With this in mind, it is clear that Facebook is not the first, best platform in which to design, implement or debate Data Portability.
Debating Google’s data portability move (Friend Connect) is like debating the Netvibes universal widget platform. It is not data portability in the sense that the DataPortability project has defined it. It is a platform that translates existing proprietary implementations into it’s own unified proprietary implementation to enable social widgets to run in more places.
MySpace’s data portability move (Data Availability) is actually the closest play to data portability as defined by the DataPortability project. It proposes to allow 3rd party sites to access the users personal data using open standards extracted from the page (using microformats and a collection of full XML standards). The terms and conditions about caching, however, also bring it in conflict with the philosophies of the DataPortability project.
So as stated before, none of these plays are true ‘DataPortability’ implementations. But they are important first steps. They are the first shots across the bow to the industry that a data portability battle is coming. In fact it has started. Are we going to let it shake out like the IM wars? Or are startups, second tier players, standards groups, bloggers and users going to rally around and standardize to a totally open, grass-roots alternative?
Are the big players going to evolve their offerings to come in line with the rest of the world, or are they going to try to dominate (read: lose).
Further, data portability, and DataPortability is not just about social networking data or social networking scenarios. Certainly not social networking as defined by the social contract of Facebook. It might even be true that Facebook is a culturally bad fit for the DataPortability ecosystem. DataPortability is about a different social contract – a contract more closely resembling the one found in the email address book.
My address book is my own. When you email me, or when you communicate with me, you are revealing something about yourself. You define a social contract with me that means that I can use your information to contact you whenever and however I like – I could even re-purpose my address book for all manor of other things.
If, however, you violate that trust, either directly or indirectly, you break the social contract and I will tend to not deal with you again. We can not perfectly engineer these sorts of contracts into systems – we can try, but in the end social behavior will be the last mile in enforcing user rights.
Also, the dichotomy between who ‘owns’ the data is false. In my mind there is shared ownership. While you use a service, it has a shared custodianship of the data. By giving the service your data you’re getting something else in return – utility. In many cases free utility.
You personally, however, have shared (and overriding) ownership over your data. This has been declared as universally true by all the vendors I’ve spoken to.
The question is not one of ownership though, it’s one of control. If you own your data but can’t control it as you choose then ownership is a moot point. Further, the question is not one of if you own it, but rather how much of it you own.
For example, do you own your friends profile data since you have access to it via the social tool you are using? Or have they only granted you access within that social context and under that social contract. These considerations blur the analogy of the purely personal address book.
In this case, there is no correct, default answer. The answer must come from an old saying – “Your rights end where my rights begin”. That is, your friends need an additional options when ‘friending’ you. A checkbox will probably be required that states ‘Allow this contact to use my data elsewhere’.
The act of ‘friending’ will also need to take on more meaning and ‘grouping’ friends will become important. It will evolve, for most of us, and in most applications, from a popularity contest to a carefully curated address book of people we actually care about.