In January, Facebook disabled the account of tech blogger Richard Scoble. His attempt to export his Facebook contacts into Microsoft Outlook violated Facebook’s terms of service.
Web 2.0 experts say the aborted download may have raised the competitive hairs on Facebook’s virtual neck given Scoble’s status in the blogosphere and accumulated 5,000 Facebook contacts.
The network “certainly would consider Scoble a competitor in trying to scrape information,” said Anthony Bradley, a managing vice president with Gartner, located in Stamford, Conn. “Facebook has a vested interest in keeping social graph data to itself. It gives it advantage in appealing to advertisers.”
The scuffle brought data portability onto the radar screens of everyday consumers who voraciously consume social community offerings.
Data portability has been an issue for a long time among dedicated techies. “Many smart and dedicated people have been quietly working on the problem for many years,” said Chris Saad, the South Brisbane, Australia-based co-founder and chairperson of DataPortability.org. “Robert’s experience with Facebook and the presence of the DataPortability Project as an outreach and evangelism group brought the issue to a head though.”
Database professionals leveraged Scoble’s online rants to excite the general public about its ownership of contacts and profiles built through online communities. That the average Web user’s attention will not dwell on data portability does not matter. The sites already are re-examining their business models.
“One of the main reasons end users don’t care about [Scoble’s] level of data portability is because they spend a lot of time building not their social graph but photos and personal postings,” Saad said. “Do they really care about extracting social graph data after spending all this time building a profile? Data portability” — or the lack of it — “is not much of a barrier to exit.”
Whether the impetus was pressure from in-the-know technical types or concern for consumer attrition, “the general consensus now is that the users own their data, not the networks,” Saad said. “I don’t think there is an online service that would claim otherwise.”
“The conversations I am having with social networks and other online sites shows that vendors understand the need for data portability,” he continued. “The only challenge now is to give them a clear road map to follow.”
Development of a standard comes at a time when topic-centric communities are coming to the fore. PatientsLikeMe and Ancestry.com answer the special interests of consumers in a way Facebook and MySpace do not. As startups break cybersoil, building new neighborhoods of support and resource sharing, adult consumers especially will join only a handful of networks. They will not invest time in the established networks if they cannot import and export data to enrich niche network participation.
“Data portability as a concept may not have reached the everyman,” Saad explained. “However, everyone is starting to feel fatigue with signing up to yet another social network. We hope to solve that problem so that vendors can continue to provide great user experiences on top of the data.”
Bradley sees another solution in the works, one with technical challenges at its base but inspiring a competitive race to overcome.
“Facebook’s whole idea is not data portability but an open portal — have everyone come to Facebook,” he said. “Facebook is saying, ‘You build a plug in to Facebook and leverage Facebook’s graph.’”
Each consumer can have a single version of his or her truth, with many communities pointing to it on a Facebook platform.
“Right now, public Web sites aren’t addressing portability,” he said. “They don’t have the inherent desire, they are not seeing the benefit and they are not hearing their members clamoring for it.”
If Facebook succeeds at becoming a platform, startup networks will win by the Willie Sutton rule, Bradley said. The prolific bank robber, when asked why he robbed banks, reportedly replied, “Because that’s where the money is.” They will leverage all that Facebook has built, in effect becoming extensions of the bigger network.
Bradley acknowledged that this development likely won’t soothe the tech-savvy crowd that wants data portability advances independent of other innovation.
“I think most of the major vendors are on par right now,” Saad said of social networks such as Facebook and MySpace. “I am looking for one of them to break ranks and take openness to a whole new level. The first one to do that will see a huge level of buzz and support from the influencer community.”
Whether users will achieve greater utility and value from their social graphs through data portability or a monopoly network remains to be seen.
Kelly Shermach is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y., who frequently writes about technology and data security. She can be reached at editor (at) certmag (dot) com.