Social networks and data portability

by Matt 20. May 2008 16:27

Speaking of data portability, and how Live Mesh plays with this, some of the big boys have recently made announcements - MySpace, Facebook and Google.

MySpace seems to be playing catch up and are announcing a REST API, initially restricted to a few partner sites. Perhaps the least impressive announcement, but the interesting part is the use of the OAuth standard for authentication.

Facebook then (a little too) hurriedly announced Facebook Connect, which seems to be a way for you to associate your profile with a third party site. That site then seems to get privileged access to the Facebook data.

Google announced Friend Connect, which is a complete sleight of hand trick. It's all about creating a social network at your site, but by hosting Google gadgets. One gadget is the master membership gadget, and all the others are OpenSocial gadgets that do "social" stuff. When you visit the site, you sign in to the membership gadget (via Google Accounts, Facebook, OpenID or AIM account). Then, the membership gadget lists all of your friends from these accounts that are also friends at the new site. The other gadgets provide the social element, such as comments.

So how do the big boys handle Data Portability? Well, poorly.

Surprisingly, MySpace is the most open. Facebook's offering definitely seems to be a step in the right direction, but appears to be limited to certain 3rd parties, and is entirely proprietary. But Google. Oh boy. They're not even trying. All of the data is stored in Google's silos. They aggregate data from other networks, but don't let any of it out - a proper roach motel. Their social offering is all based on gadgets, and the hosting site doesn't see any of the social data.

Charitably, you can view Google's play as not being about data portability, but about enabling sites to easily add a social element - playing to the Long Tail of sites wanting a social element without having to build up the number of members required to make a successful social site.

Of course, the fun only starts there. Facebook have banned Google's Friend Connect from accessing the Facebook API, because they've violated the terms and conditions of the service (more from TechCrunch and a detailed view from Google). It would be very easy to be snarky here and ask how committed Facebook is to Data Portability...

(And Dare makes a welcome return to blogging with a great post about this.)

But it does raise a very interesting question that Live Mesh (which might be able to sidestep these portability issues) doesn't address - ownership of data. DataPortability.org's Chris Saad has an interesting view on this in his blog post "Forget Facebook".

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.

And I think this nails it. Unless you want one way communication, you have to share information. You need to trust who you're sharing that information with, just like we do in the Real World with telephone numbers and addresses. Any technological barrier we put in place here is just Rights Management, and we all know how well that's worked out for DRM.

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