The real roadblocks to data portability on social networks

I see that Yahoo has joined up with Google’s Open Social. That’s cool because it will let developers build gadgets, widgets, social networking applications, or whatever we’re calling these things that are like Facebook apps, twice, instead of dozens of times. Once for Facebook and once for everyone else. That’s really great, because it’ll encourage developers to build a bunch of new stuff and get the promise of a lot of reach. At least once the platform is done and it all works as advertised (devs tell me it’s not there yet, but coming along).

But I, and many of my friends, care much more about true data portability. Here’s a few things we want to do:

1. Many of us are on more than a dozen social networks. I’m on Flickr, YouTube, Facebook, MySpace, Orkut, Upcoming.org, FriendFeed, SocialThing, Profilactic, FastCompany.com, Twitter, Pownce, WordPress.com, Disqus, and many more. You didn’t think each of those is a social network, did you? They are. The problem? Well, this year I wanted to change my email from robertscoble@hotmail.com to scobleizer@gmail.com. Doing just that simple action is a pain in the behind. If we had true dataportability we’d just change it in one place and the change would ripple through all other social networks.

2. When a Facebook user friends you and gives you his/her email address it’d be nice to have that automatically placed into your favorite email client so you could actually use it without having to type it in again.

3. When a new social network comes along (say your company turns one on this morning) I’d love it if it noticed that 15 of my friends who join up there are also on Twitter, etc. Why is that important? Because if there were some way to bind these social networks together they could do a lot more for you. For instance, I know that Scott Beale is on almost all of my social networks listed above. Why don’t the systems know that? If they did, we wouldn’t have a need for FriendFeed, or Profilactic, or SocialThing (those systems are attempting to glue all those social networks together).

So, what’s the problem, beyond the politics of some of this stuff (will Facebook join the Dataportability.org? Who cares? Has the Dataportability.org actually shipped anything yet beyond PR?)

WHAT IS THE HOLDUP?

It’s not easy to do any of this stuff. On Saturday I talked with Dave Morin, head of Facebook’s application platform.

He brought up use case after use case that I hadn’t really thought through.

For instance, what if a user wants to delete his or her info off of Facebook. Today that’s possible. But what about in a really data portable world? After all, in such a world Facebook might have sprayed your email and other data to other social networks. What if those other social networks don’t want to delete your data after you asked Facebook to?

Another case? How do you define spam? Based on my experiences lately lots of people define it differently. I don’t mind “noisy” systems, but some people really are bothered by that. So, if you’re over on Facebook and you give friends your email address and then that opens you up to “noisy” systems, how do you feel about Facebook?

Another case: you want your closest Facebook friends to know your birthday, but not everyone else. How do you make your social network data portable, but make sure that your privacy is secured?

Another case? Which of your data is yours? Which belongs to your friends? And, which belongs to the social network itself? For instance, we can say that my photos that I put on Facebook are mine and that they should also be shared with, say, Flickr or SmugMug, right? How about the comments under those photos? The tags? The privacy data that was entered about them? The voting data? And other stuff that other users might have put onto those photos? Is all of that stuff supposed to be portable? (I’d argue no, cause how would a comment left by a Facebook user on Facebook be good on Flickr?) So, if you argue no, where is the line? And, even if we can all agree on where the line is, how do we get both Facebook and Flickr to build the APIs needed to make that happen?

Another case? You go to Flickr. Change your email address. Then you go to Facebook and change your email address to a different one. Now you head over to Twitter and change it again to yet a third one. Which one is correct? How do these systems, not owned by the same companies, figure this out? Time stamp? What if you actually want the systems to use three separate email addresses?

And we went on and on.

So, the story is, doing the simplest of data portability (for instance, making all systems understand when I changed my email address) is going to take a lot of work and a lot of cooperation between all of the players). Doing the toughest stuff (like sharing of some of the social graph, or making things like photos and videos portable) will take a lot longer.

I’d be surprised if we see some real movement on data portability between a good number of systems by the end of the year.

Do you expect any better?

142 thoughts on “The real roadblocks to data portability on social networks

  1. Who wants to port their comments from one site to the next anyway? I don’t really think that’s the purpose. If someone needs to go elsewhere then so be it. Leave some clutter behind.

  2. Who wants to port their comments from one site to the next anyway? I don’t really think that’s the purpose. If someone needs to go elsewhere then so be it. Leave some clutter behind.

  3. I’m not sure that this will be a profitable venture for Microsoft, but it’s worth a try. We know that owning a centrally located piece of real estate and inviting big names to stake their claim there has worked in the real world in the past. Microsoft has shown their ability in Web 1.0 to make money, and it’s apparent that no one in social networking has figured out how to do that yet . . .

    The Microsoft strategy appears to start with inviting your friends and connections to connect on Windows Live Messenger (not sounding a lot like portability here — I am thinking “import from”).

    So I tried the only currently available option — Facebook. A login to Facebook screen (with Windows Live logo but a Facebook URL) popped up, and the first try on login failed (hmmm, a phishing site?). But the next screen had the Facebook logo, and it logged me in just fine. I didn’t however, see where I could add anyone to an invite list, so . . . I gave up and started blogging.

    So we’ll just keep beta testing while Microsoft keeps building . . .

    http://carterfsmith.blogspot.com/2008/04/social-network-portability-is-coming.html

  4. I’m not sure that this will be a profitable venture for Microsoft, but it’s worth a try. We know that owning a centrally located piece of real estate and inviting big names to stake their claim there has worked in the real world in the past. Microsoft has shown their ability in Web 1.0 to make money, and it’s apparent that no one in social networking has figured out how to do that yet . . .

    The Microsoft strategy appears to start with inviting your friends and connections to connect on Windows Live Messenger (not sounding a lot like portability here — I am thinking “import from”).

    So I tried the only currently available option — Facebook. A login to Facebook screen (with Windows Live logo but a Facebook URL) popped up, and the first try on login failed (hmmm, a phishing site?). But the next screen had the Facebook logo, and it logged me in just fine. I didn’t however, see where I could add anyone to an invite list, so . . . I gave up and started blogging.

    So we’ll just keep beta testing while Microsoft keeps building . . .

    http://carterfsmith.blogspot.com/2008/04/social-network-portability-is-coming.html

  5. I don’t think by the end of the year, but it needs to happen soon. hell, one example… I would like it once when I leave comments on blogs that I don’t need to remember the logins for wordpress, blogger and who knows what else, and the myriad of email addresses I used over the years to set them up. I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to leave a comment but the moment passed by the time I either created an ID for something, hunted for the login, or reset a password. Sounds small scale, but a single sign on for all that would be huge.

  6. I don’t think by the end of the year, but it needs to happen soon. hell, one example… I would like it once when I leave comments on blogs that I don’t need to remember the logins for wordpress, blogger and who knows what else, and the myriad of email addresses I used over the years to set them up. I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to leave a comment but the moment passed by the time I either created an ID for something, hunted for the login, or reset a password. Sounds small scale, but a single sign on for all that would be huge.

  7. Matt (comment #6) says:

    “We really need to push for an Open spec on social markup. A downloadable file (like OPML for feeds) marked up with microformats containing your social profile information… all you should have to do is import this file containing all info…”

    That would be FOAF. It was around a long time before the current crop of social networks, and has had an awful lot of work put into it by some very smart people. I’m surprised nobody here has mentioned it yet, as it’s an idea whose time has clearly come. See it at: http://www.foaf-project.org/

  8. Matt (comment #6) says:

    “We really need to push for an Open spec on social markup. A downloadable file (like OPML for feeds) marked up with microformats containing your social profile information… all you should have to do is import this file containing all info…”

    That would be FOAF. It was around a long time before the current crop of social networks, and has had an awful lot of work put into it by some very smart people. I’m surprised nobody here has mentioned it yet, as it’s an idea whose time has clearly come. See it at: http://www.foaf-project.org/

  9. One idea I’ve had about this issue relates to the lifestream aggregators. Is it possible to view FriendFeed as your “social network cloud”? All the updates from the various social networks feed the cloud.

    Then you look at something like Twitter or Jaiku less as THE social network, and more as a social application. Your friends see your updates via FriendFeed, not via Twitter. They can comment directly on the FriendFeed site.

    In such a scenario, switching from something like Twitter to Jaiku or Pownce means you don’t lose the connections you have. They keep up with you via the lifestream cloud. Same idea could apply for moving from Flickr to SmugMug. People don’t keep up with you via the social app – they follow you on the lifestream aggregator. A backdoor way to data (or maybe social network) portability.

    More thoughts here: http://tinyurl.com/29cu6k

  10. One idea I’ve had about this issue relates to the lifestream aggregators. Is it possible to view FriendFeed as your “social network cloud”? All the updates from the various social networks feed the cloud.

    Then you look at something like Twitter or Jaiku less as THE social network, and more as a social application. Your friends see your updates via FriendFeed, not via Twitter. They can comment directly on the FriendFeed site.

    In such a scenario, switching from something like Twitter to Jaiku or Pownce means you don’t lose the connections you have. They keep up with you via the lifestream cloud. Same idea could apply for moving from Flickr to SmugMug. People don’t keep up with you via the social app – they follow you on the lifestream aggregator. A backdoor way to data (or maybe social network) portability.

    More thoughts here: http://tinyurl.com/29cu6k

  11. I think the most important point is that sometimes we don’t want every network to know everything. I might want to delete my info from one network but not another. And, just like you suggested, I use a different email address for every site I join. Any sort of data propagation between networks would have to be entirely optional.

  12. I think the most important point is that sometimes we don’t want every network to know everything. I might want to delete my info from one network but not another. And, just like you suggested, I use a different email address for every site I join. Any sort of data propagation between networks would have to be entirely optional.

  13. This issues you raise are important. I have been working for 4 years almost full time to help support the evolution of a community to solve these problems. At the core of the problem of getting people related data to move is – Identity. This is what IDentity Commons is all supporting a community of groups addressing the range of issues (technical, social and legal) that come up. http://wiki.idcommons.net/index.php/Working_Group_Descriptions

    I am VERY hopeful that the face to face opportunity to meet at the Data Sharing Summit will move things forward significantly. http://www.datasharingsummit.com – I hope you and other deeply concerned about getting this problem solved can come – there is nothing like a white board and and a real live face to face conversation to make progress on difficult issues.

    The event is being run in the tradition of the Internet Identity Workshop that has been instrumental in progress in that realm. http://iiw.idcommons.net

  14. This issues you raise are important. I have been working for 4 years almost full time to help support the evolution of a community to solve these problems. At the core of the problem of getting people related data to move is – Identity. This is what IDentity Commons is all supporting a community of groups addressing the range of issues (technical, social and legal) that come up. http://wiki.idcommons.net/index.php/Working_Group_Descriptions

    I am VERY hopeful that the face to face opportunity to meet at the Data Sharing Summit will move things forward significantly. http://www.datasharingsummit.com – I hope you and other deeply concerned about getting this problem solved can come – there is nothing like a white board and and a real live face to face conversation to make progress on difficult issues.

    The event is being run in the tradition of the Internet Identity Workshop that has been instrumental in progress in that realm. http://iiw.idcommons.net

  15. DataPortability.org won’t work because they aren’t solving the biggest problem — and probably can’t. Just look at their FAQ – it breaks the problem into vendors, consumers, and standards and technology. They’re skirting around the real problem, which is lack of a consistent data model. Absent that, data portability inevitably encounters impedence mismatches at every translation point as different sites try to use the data for different purposes.

    Look at a really core example: person. If you look in a law book, the flesh and blood you will find that there are different concepts of person. You as a reader of this blog are a natural person or, at least for our purposes. A “legal person” can also be, for example, a corporation, a trustee, a partnership, etc.. So, a single natural person can have a wide variety of relationships and types of relationships with any number of legal persons. In fact, persons in general can have a wide variety of relationships with other persons; natural persons are just a special case. Data portability has to consider:

    * Relationships between people and other people (natural or otherwise).
    * Trust relationships between people.
    * Transitivity of those relationships.

    Now add back the reality of an online identity. Identity is not a person. It’s the handle to interact with a system. Data portability is based on the idea that if “you” just had a portable identity, problems would be solved. The misguided assumption is that multiple identities are just an artifact of using computers, and that it’s a problem that goes away in the real world. It doesn’t. Identity is just a handle that ties some identifier such as “robertscoble” to some person, with some degree of confidence. So now the question is which person should it tie to? Robert Scoble? Scobleizer? Is Scobleizer more useful as an identity or as a “person” in it’s own right? What relationship does either of those “people” have to the real Rober Scoble? Do you really want those tied to the same person as your birth certificate, passport and IRS records? Would you want that ability if, for example, somebody started publishing as “Scobleizer” on some other blog? If not, how could any of those identities legitimately be called yours? The boundary between you and your online presence is fuzzy. That adds to the data portability problem:

    * Relationships between authentication techniques (passwords, etc.) and identities.
    * Confidence in those relationships.
    * Transitivity of the confidence across systems that are themselves authenticated to varying degrees of confidence.
    * Relationships between identities and people.
    * Trust between people and the sites that use the identities.

    Whatever movement we get this year will have to be very careful about which part of the problem they try to solve. OpenId has done a really good job of making clear what pieces it solves and which it doesn’t. It doesn’t solve a lot of things, but at least acknowledges as much. I’m not so sure that DataPortability.org has yet established exactly where their boundaries are and should be.

  16. DataPortability.org won’t work because they aren’t solving the biggest problem — and probably can’t. Just look at their FAQ – it breaks the problem into vendors, consumers, and standards and technology. They’re skirting around the real problem, which is lack of a consistent data model. Absent that, data portability inevitably encounters impedence mismatches at every translation point as different sites try to use the data for different purposes.

    Look at a really core example: person. If you look in a law book, the flesh and blood you will find that there are different concepts of person. You as a reader of this blog are a natural person or, at least for our purposes. A “legal person” can also be, for example, a corporation, a trustee, a partnership, etc.. So, a single natural person can have a wide variety of relationships and types of relationships with any number of legal persons. In fact, persons in general can have a wide variety of relationships with other persons; natural persons are just a special case. Data portability has to consider:

    * Relationships between people and other people (natural or otherwise).
    * Trust relationships between people.
    * Transitivity of those relationships.

    Now add back the reality of an online identity. Identity is not a person. It’s the handle to interact with a system. Data portability is based on the idea that if “you” just had a portable identity, problems would be solved. The misguided assumption is that multiple identities are just an artifact of using computers, and that it’s a problem that goes away in the real world. It doesn’t. Identity is just a handle that ties some identifier such as “robertscoble” to some person, with some degree of confidence. So now the question is which person should it tie to? Robert Scoble? Scobleizer? Is Scobleizer more useful as an identity or as a “person” in it’s own right? What relationship does either of those “people” have to the real Rober Scoble? Do you really want those tied to the same person as your birth certificate, passport and IRS records? Would you want that ability if, for example, somebody started publishing as “Scobleizer” on some other blog? If not, how could any of those identities legitimately be called yours? The boundary between you and your online presence is fuzzy. That adds to the data portability problem:

    * Relationships between authentication techniques (passwords, etc.) and identities.
    * Confidence in those relationships.
    * Transitivity of the confidence across systems that are themselves authenticated to varying degrees of confidence.
    * Relationships between identities and people.
    * Trust between people and the sites that use the identities.

    Whatever movement we get this year will have to be very careful about which part of the problem they try to solve. OpenId has done a really good job of making clear what pieces it solves and which it doesn’t. It doesn’t solve a lot of things, but at least acknowledges as much. I’m not so sure that DataPortability.org has yet established exactly where their boundaries are and should be.

  17. Robert,

    Facebook has officially given the finger on Data Portabilty.

    I’ve been emailing their corporate communications coordinator back and forth asking why/when/how the “export to CSV” feature was deleted. I asked if there was someone with institutional knowledge and expertise on the history of the system to know, and was told that there isn’t such a person.

    *cough*bullshit*cough*

    Isn’t it just easier to tell the truth?

  18. Robert,

    Facebook has officially given the finger on Data Portabilty.

    I’ve been emailing their corporate communications coordinator back and forth asking why/when/how the “export to CSV” feature was deleted. I asked if there was someone with institutional knowledge and expertise on the history of the system to know, and was told that there isn’t such a person.

    *cough*bullshit*cough*

    Isn’t it just easier to tell the truth?

  19. Robert, I think your point #3 is excellent, and is actually something that we’ve been working on for a long time here at Socialthing! I’d love to get a conversation going with you to talk about what you would specifically like to see.

    If you can, email me at matt at socialthing dot com…

  20. Robert, I think your point #3 is excellent, and is actually something that we’ve been working on for a long time here at Socialthing! I’d love to get a conversation going with you to talk about what you would specifically like to see.

    If you can, email me at matt at socialthing dot com…

  21. I’m glad the Facebook guy was able to cramp your data portability extremism a little bit into some pragmatic considerations that aren’t just other people’s privacy, which is something you may not care about, but raise just data *management* issues, like the problem of software you can’t leave because it keeps spraying your info everywhere.

    What I dislike about this discussion is the horrid artificial problem created out of thin air, which then is mounted as a thing needing a “solution”.

    And that problem is an imaginary one, where tekkies who don’t like typing their handles and passwords 10 times over are inconvenienced.

    It’s simply hard to see that as a problem. Who cares?! You can solve the problem by making your handle and password the same everywhere, which shouldn’t matter on these dollar-a-dozen social networks that come and go, and aren’t involving monetary transactions but only chat.

    Surely some of them will die off and only a few stronger ones will survive and/or be bought out. So why fuss about your inability to port your friendz from Wikitikiwoo.com to Rinkydinki.net when both of them will become extinct by next year?

    I also don’t like the idea of having some social-mark-up that might inevitably enable some entity to have all your social data centralized somewhere under the guise of open-source and under the guise of you being to manage and apportion it out to this or that social network.

    At some point, the places that exist on the Internet that you will be “on” aren’t going to be the places anymore, such that you have to sign up for them.

    The place you will be “on” will be your phone, with its unique number and password. Obviously you’ll control what you want to be on that mobile phone yourself, linked to that number and password. You won’t need any hand-holding from any opensourced wikitarian to do this.

    And that phone will then access all the stuff out there and maybe not even bother to log in anymore — why should it? it won’t need to. The websites will be the connecting spaces between phones.

    Yes, there will be multiple phone services that will not have interoperability. Good!

  22. I’m glad the Facebook guy was able to cramp your data portability extremism a little bit into some pragmatic considerations that aren’t just other people’s privacy, which is something you may not care about, but raise just data *management* issues, like the problem of software you can’t leave because it keeps spraying your info everywhere.

    What I dislike about this discussion is the horrid artificial problem created out of thin air, which then is mounted as a thing needing a “solution”.

    And that problem is an imaginary one, where tekkies who don’t like typing their handles and passwords 10 times over are inconvenienced.

    It’s simply hard to see that as a problem. Who cares?! You can solve the problem by making your handle and password the same everywhere, which shouldn’t matter on these dollar-a-dozen social networks that come and go, and aren’t involving monetary transactions but only chat.

    Surely some of them will die off and only a few stronger ones will survive and/or be bought out. So why fuss about your inability to port your friendz from Wikitikiwoo.com to Rinkydinki.net when both of them will become extinct by next year?

    I also don’t like the idea of having some social-mark-up that might inevitably enable some entity to have all your social data centralized somewhere under the guise of open-source and under the guise of you being to manage and apportion it out to this or that social network.

    At some point, the places that exist on the Internet that you will be “on” aren’t going to be the places anymore, such that you have to sign up for them.

    The place you will be “on” will be your phone, with its unique number and password. Obviously you’ll control what you want to be on that mobile phone yourself, linked to that number and password. You won’t need any hand-holding from any opensourced wikitarian to do this.

    And that phone will then access all the stuff out there and maybe not even bother to log in anymore — why should it? it won’t need to. The websites will be the connecting spaces between phones.

    Yes, there will be multiple phone services that will not have interoperability. Good!

  23. There are so many open questions (as described), and we are “just” talking about DATA portability. What if meaning comes into play (portable ontologies)? One question is “what exists?”, another is “what is/shall be transfered?”. Things are not getting easier…

  24. There are so many open questions (as described), and we are “just” talking about DATA portability. What if meaning comes into play (portable ontologies)? One question is “what exists?”, another is “what is/shall be transfered?”. Things are not getting easier…

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