I’m a big fan of the concept of a user centric web. That is, a web where things evolve around the user. In a user centric web there aren’t walled gardens. In a user centric web, the user is in charge. He controls his data, his interactions, his transactions. He owns his own set of contacts or friends and has them with him wherever he goes. In a user centric web service providers become just that, service providers. Not data hoggers, traffic drivers, walled gardens. They provide service to me when I desire such a service. The analogy I tend to use is that of a traveler reaching a gas station. I have a need for food, I want to fill the car up again and then move on to another place on my journey.
Google, Facebook and MySpace are fighting it out right now to “own” our data. Google just launched FriendConnect, Facebook delivers Facebook Connect, and MySpace calls it Data Availability. Michael Arrington wrote about this on TechCrunch earlier. He said:
Like Data Availability and Facebook Connect, Google’s Friend Connect will be a way to securely send personal profile data, including friend lists, presence/status information, etc., to third party applications, say our sources. The primary benefit of these services is to allow users to maintain a single friends list and to coordinate social activities across different sites that perform different services. See my post on the Centralized Me for more of my thoughts on this.
The reason these companies are rushing to get products out the door is because whoever is a player in this space is likely to control user data over the long run. If users don’t have to put profile and friend information into multiple sites, they will gravitate towards one site that they identify with, and then allow other sites to access that data. The desire to own user identities over the long run is also causing the big Internet companies, in my opinion, to rush to become OpenID issuers (but not relying parties).
Michael is probably right about the motives of these three. It’s the web 2.0 trap we are all in. Who owns the data? Everyone wants to get a piece of it and they are all using the FREE business model to reach that point. but Free comes with a few problems I noted earlier. It leads to walled gardens, more focus on the network (or social graph) than on the user, forced advertisement and worst of all it leads to customer lock-in, instead of customer freedom.
I like Doc Searls take on this. He calls the developments to open up social networks using FriendConnect and the likes not really open. Instead a federation is created. A federation that lets the user travel around a bit, but he still doesn’t own anything. He isn’t in control of his own data. In other words, a federation isn’t a User Centric Web. Doc Searl points me to this excellent post by Joe Andrieu. Read his post, its really good. A quote that says it all from Joe is:
When we put the user at the center, and make them the point of integration, the entire system becomes simpler, more robust, more scalable, and more useful.
I believe this is what FactoryJoe is also working on. He wrote an excellent post on Data portabilty. He can get a bit technical for those that don’t like the inner workings of technology too much, but I have found it worthwile my time to dig into his writings. He takes the time to explain what data portability is and should be.
So if you ask me what is “data portability”, I’ll concede that it’s a symbol for starting a conversation about what’s wrong with the state of social networks. Beyond that, I think there’s a great danger that, as a result of framing the current opportunity around “data portability”, the story that will get picked up and retold will be the about copying data between social networks, rather than the more compelling, more future-facing, and frankly more likely situation of data streaming from trusted brokered sources to downstream authorized consumers. But, I guess “copying” and “moving” data is easier to grasp conceptually, and so that’s what I think a lot of people will think when they hear the phrase. In any case, it gets the conversation started, and from there, where it goes, is anyone’s guess.
He ends his post with the following remark:
I think the next evolution of the social web is going to be one where we take certain things, like identity, like portable contact lists, like better and more consistent permissioning systems as givens, and as a result, will lead to much more interesting, more compelling, and, perhaps even more lucrative, uses of the open social web.
I hope with Doc Searl and Factoryjoe that the next generation of the web (call it web 3.0 if you want) will be a User Centric Web. It will be both a business and a technical challenge to create it. We first need to get out of the web 2.0 FREE trap. If investors, entrepreneurs and developers are willing to think beyond the current web 2.0 boundaries then great things can happen. And if they do then services like Facebook and MySpace might just get into trouble in the end. I don’t want them to control my data. In a User Centric Web I get to control my data.
Update: Facebook just announced here that they are not going to allow Google’s FriendConnect on Facebook. The reason for this is that FriendConnect, according to Facebook, redistributes user data without the user knowing about it. Robert Scoble responds with Facebook having a point with respect to privacy. Both Robert and Facebook are arguing from the side of the service provider making the decisions though. That is exaclty why the user needs to be in control. The problem wouldn’t exist in the firs place. In a discussion on Friendfeed Robert says:
to me the Facebook privacy issue is giving its users control over where their data gets used. So, if I want to change my email address it changes everywhere on Facebook. If someone takes my email address off of Facebook into another system, like Google’s Friend Connect, unless they also respect those changes then I’ve lost control of my data. That, in Facebook’s view, is bad. – Robert Scoble
Again. If the user is in control of his own data, this is a non-issue. In a User Centric Web updating my own data and notifying my friends that I did could be done without the interference of these big social networks.