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,, FriendFeed, SocialThing, Profilactic,, Twitter, Pownce,, 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 to 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 Who cares? Has the actually shipped anything yet beyond PR?)


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?


OK, forget for a few minutes the debate about who owns your email addresses, birthdays, and name on social networking sites.

Forget for a few minutes about whether or not I was a jerk, stupid, idiotic, or worse for breaking the terms of service of one of your favorite companies.

Forget for a few minutes about whether it’s right or not that I got my account turned back on.

But after reading thousands of blog posts, comments, Twitter messages, and talking with tons of people one thing is still really freaking me out:

I was erased.

Erased so quickly and completely that my friends had no idea what happened.

And not only was I erased, but anyone who wrote on my wall’s data was erased too.

My photos were erased.

My videos were erased.

AND all of YOUR data associated with those were erased.

Rodney Rumford has the picture of erasure.

Now, keep in mind, this isn’t a video game. It isn’t a review site. Or a restaurant site.

It’s something that claims to be a “utility.”

I’ve gotten dozens of messages from people who claim to have been erased by Facebook who DID NOT run a script (or so they say). They were just erased for some perceived slight and because they aren’t a famous blogger they haven’t gotten their accounts turned back on.

So, this is a company you want to trust your private details to? A company that can not just block access to your account, but can erase every last detail about you.

And you’re wondering what I’m doing trying to get your email address and birthday out of this system?

Personally, can you put my email, phone, birthday into some other system so that you know how to get ahold of me after I get erased the next time? Thanks! It’s always on my blog.

And people wonder why I love the open public Web…

OK, now we can get back to calling me an idiot, or arguing whether or not you, by adding me to your friends or follower lists, gave me permission to add your email address to other systems I use, and whether or not I should have been allowed back into Facebook. All that doesn’t bother me as much as just realizing that a company can totally wipe you off the face of their walled garden without any due process or any real recourse.

Not that I’ve learned my lesson. Right now I’m typing this from an Apple store computer in San Francisco and I’ve put 89 videos up on Qik (which just improved its quality) and who knows whether or not my videos will get erased in the future from that service?

Call me a sucker for letting other companies control my data. But, probably, so are you. Welcome to the world where you don’t really own your data.

Hope you never get erased.

Will Google "Friendster" Facebook?

Anyone remember Friendster? It was an early entrant into the social networking scene. If they had done their work right they SHOULD have been a much bigger player than they are now.

Why aren’t they?

1. They didn’t take care of PR and didn’t take care of bloggers. Hmmm, Facebook is doing exactly the same thing. Several people at the dinner tonight noted that Facebook hasn’t responded to claims that Facebook’s employees are spying on data that the public doesn’t have access to. And that’s just one PR complaint.
2. They kicked people out that they didn’t like. Hmmm, Facebook is doing exactly the same thing.
3. They didn’t respond to new competitors who took away their coolness. Facebook? They are about to meet their biggest competition yet.

Last night I was at a dinner for Hugh Macleod and Oren Michaels. There was talk of an earthquake. No, not the 5.6 one centered near San Jose. The fact that Google is about to jump into the social networking world. TechCrunch caused the shockwave of the year with that one.

One name that’s on the Google announcement, Plaxo, tells me that Google is looking to build a “social graph” that’s open and doesn’t have walls keeping developers from playing. They are looking to “Friendster” Facebook.

Add into this last week’s little “Vic Gundotra” dinner and I’m already seeing a trend: Google is going full bore after influentials, bloggers, and other “new media” developers who need a social network as part of their efforts to remain competitive.

Think about it. Nearly every cool Web property lately has a social network., Flickr, Yelp, Channel 9, etc. All have their own proprietary social networks.

Look at MySpace and Facebook. Both don’t solve that problem.

Will Google? And, by helping out Web 2.0 developers and other influentials (Facebook calls them “whales”) will Google cut off Facebook’s PR air supply (which is proving quite lucrative)?

Those are things I’m going to focus on for the next few days.

Some things we still need answers on:

1. Is this new Google social network really fun to use like Facebook is?
2. Does it beat Facebook’s aesthetics?
3. Can the social graph be componetized so that I could add a social network to my blog, for instance?
4. Does the development platform beat Facebook’s? (Can I see which apps my friends have loaded, is the key question).
5. Does it build a really open social graph?
6. If Google does match Facebook’s utility (really easy: just clone the hell out of it but give the “whales” more than 5,000 friends. I’ve talked with many celebrities and businesses and they say 5,000 simply isn’t enough which is why many of them are forced to stay on MySpace) do they allow new kinds of social ads?

It’s going to be an interesting next month getting around to all these companies again and seeing what they plan to do.