In a User Centric Web I get to control my data

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.

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17 Responses to In a User Centric Web I get to control my data

  1. Meryn Stol says:

    For companies (obviously stuck in the ownership paradigm) it’s logical they are concerned about “ownership”. But why are you?

    What, for practical purposes, does it matter who “owns” the data? Can you give examples when you feel harmed because of it?

  2. Meryn Stol says:

    For technical reasons, I think a P2P architecture will eventually win out, but at that time we’d be living in a post data-center era. Still I don’t think it would matter much for the user experience.

  3. @Meryn there are many reasons in my opinion why I would want to own my personal data. Social Network sites collect data about me and my relationships to fit their own need, not mine. It leads to privacy issues and all the effects I described in relation to the FREE business model. There are a number of examples where people got nasty surprises when social networks used their personal data for purposes unknown to the user. Just search on project Beacon of Facebook and you will see a few examples. But regardless of privacy. If a company is not concerned about getting as much data on me as possible, but instead would focus on providing me user value, then the service would improve dramatically. It leads to customer freedom instead of customer lock-in.

  4. Meryn Stol says:

    “If a company is not concerned about getting as much data on me as possible, but instead would focus on providing me user value, then the service would improve dramatically.”
    I agree with that, but this problem goes much further then social media. Unfortunately companies are only concerned with making money (in the USA, it’s even their fiduciary duty), not providing value perse. Just think of all the value that’s locked up by Microsoft.

    This is far from a global optimum, but it won’t change by complaining about it. It only changes when a technical model comes along that doesn’t need big upfront investments by companies or governments. (e.g. open source, p2p) I name governments explicitly because they will underinvest in global public goods.

    And in the end, that’s because of us, citizens and shareholders. We want others (companies, our government) to fight in our name for the biggest piece of the pie, instead of asking them to focus merely to increase the size of the pie.

    “If investors, entrepreneurs and developers are willing to think beyond the current web 2.0 boundaries then great things can happen.”

    Do you think there’s a market-based solution for this? I think the only solution to this is P2P, and that leaves investors and entrepreneurs out of the game, except if you would call leading open source developers entrepreneurs also, which could be argued for.

  5. Meryn Stol says:

    You might be interested in the work done by the P2P Foundation:

  6. P2P

    Somehow P2P implementations always smack of something that needs to hide – social vices for sure would benefit from Social P2P implementation.

    But most of us lead the larger part of our lives in shared settings, relatively open to scrutiny. Privacy in these situations is not about what you want to hide, but about what you want to reveal. In other words, self-expression of your multi-faceted identity is a natural social behavior that needs to be facilitated. It’s only in visible social settings that social behaviors can interplay, and evolve new forms of social interactions.

    Federated vs. Integrated

    Federated architectures are a cop-out. Take a look at Yahoo and its host of properties – even though they control the entire set, they are unable to provide a consistent user experience across their properties. Just try setting up a Small Business account, figure out My Yahoo vs. Y360. All at loose ends because they think of themselves as a Portal and not as a Platform.

    On the other hand, take Google and its services. Brilliant integration across its entire suite of services because they have an information integration platform – not a Portal.


    Absolutely needed. A tightly integrated user experience that is owned and controlled by the user, where apps are always on tap – subscribed to from a social web of trusted sources. Data portability is a means to this end. If we stop at data portability all we will get is a bunch of Plaxo-like data services, selling themselves off to an ISP.


    Mobile access is a variant of land line voice that users pay for – and the primary reasons are it is a fresh form of delivery and is also about personal identity. In similar fashion, we will pay for social interactions that reinforce our identity and deliver web services to us in fresh ways.

  7. @Meryn there are lots of companies that make money simply y delivering user value. It’s the best business model there is. Take a look at the Diso project from FactoryJoe. He is working on some of the core technologies, but there are others as well (VRM by Doc Searl).

    @Srini I agree with you on the Federated vs Integrated point. Plaxo selling itself is a perfect example of a company that isn’t providing me user value. Their business model was to create value through the network the users build for them and then get bought. It worked, but doesn’t help the user a bit. I also believe in the end we might pay for services that provide value and mobile is a good example of that. Rolf Skyberg also once wrote a nice piece on that (look up why we pay to network)

  8. matt says:

    Obviosuly p2p is nowhere even remotely close to a viable solution to the data problem… and I for one give a very big damn who “owns” my data (it matters a great deal to me). It is very sheepish to concede with the “who cares who owns your data” routine. If that works for some people, so be it… it does not work for me.

    p2p obviously uses the “internet” but it is isolated from the “web”. the “web” and “p2p” are both completely different vehicles that both use the same road (the “internet”). Some of us like the “web”… and that is clearly what the author was talking about… it’s even in the title! The notion that p2p services will somehow, someway, someday wrangle the social interweebs into a decentralized shangri-la is almost as absurd as assuming Google, Facebook, and MySpace are actually working “together” for “the user”.

  9. Matt – brilliant thoughts – “p2p vs. the web” analogy is bang on. I never heard it expressed that way – and you are completely right. We all do suffer from the conditioning of: P2p the dark domain of torrent users, and the self-righteous users of the acceptable open web!

    You are also quite correct that the best implementation at the technical level for a user-centric web will indeed manifest at the edge of the network. My point was the evolution of social interactions where people will pay for access to the network are best going to happen in visible web space, where value is perceived.

    At the junction of the p2p implementation and the user-centric web application is what I call the Social Firewall.

    ps: complete side note. An observation on nationalities pardon the typecasting. Matt sounds like an American upholding the unassailable rights of the individual, whereas Alexander is obviously European where government is more social in nature. Consider – America invented the Internet and Europe (CERN) invented the Web! Both are needed.

  10. @matt I agree, p2p won’t do the trick. And I also like the p2p versus the web comparison.
    @srini, can’t speak for matt but I’m Dutch 😉 I am not so sure the governments in Europe are more social, but they are a bit more concerned about privacy than the US government is. In the end I believe the user should be the one in control.

  11. Pingback: Prototype of a Person » Blog Archive » Cyberpsychology Digest Volume 1

  12. The difference is that in Europe the governments are more concerned about privacy – in a sense they are providing for a social need, whereas in the US the individuals have to assert themselves because social needs are not met. And privacy for the individual is a social need.

  13. Meryn Stol says:

    With P2P, I wasn’t thinking of normal P2P apps, but the notion that you don’t want a third-party between two persons who want to connect. The network is sufficient for this. That’s what the word means: Peer-to-Peer.

    To remove the confusion, let’s replace the word P2P with “distributed”. Distributed social network architectures will surely be based on HTTP, although XMPP could play an important role in the future for update notifications.

    DISO is a first step towards such a distributed social network. However, I don’t think such projects will provide more user value in the short term. In the mean time, we’re better off with these evil companies “owning” our data. Where’s the distributed friendfeed, flickr, digg, twitter? Right…
    And the main reason for this is that the technology is simply not there yet. And there isn’t much incentive to develop it because there’s not really money to be made from such a distributed model. For the development of this software, we have to rely on people spending their free time, or hope that companies will pay some developers, like Vidoop is doing now with FactoryJoe from DISO. That’s a whole lot different than the big development teams employed by the big social media sites.

    In the long run, I’m sure distributed architectures will win. The current company+VC+datacenter approach is the best what we have now, but it will not hold.

  14. I find it interesting to split the stack in two pieces. In the old days it was kernel space vs. user space. To slap my own label on it – let’s say it’s now about user space vs. application space.

    Distributed friendfeed, digg, twitter applications are very hard to implement because distributed applications are impossible without first having a distributed user-space – and the core of that is distributed Identity. Vidoop has worked out a valuable security service for a Login service, but this is still a federated model of Identity – it is a point solution for one problem. It is not the solution for building distributed applications.

    A distributed Identity will allow you to have facets of your Identity being dynamically projected into different (application) spaces. Without that fundamental innovation, every distributed application will be forced to implement all the onerous privacy settings for each type of interaction – either data will leak through the cracks, or only “admins” will use such a system.

    You are right in that DiSo will open the playing field, but the only way this will catch fire in the broader sense (make money) is if someone builds a killer app for everyday User interactions that can then pave the way for a distributed Identity on the web.

  15. And here is a video (and 3 related videos) of what we are working on …

  16. Could you possibly chagne the title of your post. The term Centric Web® happens to be a internationally registered trademark of our company. Thank you.

  17. Pingback: Facebook Connect a privacy tool? Yeah Right! « Alexander van Elsas’s Weblog on new media & technologies and their effect on social behavior

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