Discussing online communities today with one of Trinity FM’s up and coming editors, the problem of data migration came up. Web 2.0 services are fantastic, but what happens when we want to leave their walled gardens? As it stands right now there exists no feasible way of say, carrying an identity from Bebo to Myspace, complete with user information, photographs and more importantly ‘friends’ (correct me if I’m wrong, but such a service would undoubtedly violate the TOS of one or both sites).
So far, so minor, a problem easily soluble, or at least survivable – on the user end through the duplication of accounts, on the social network provider end through competition. Just as Yahoo and Google trump other web based email services by allowing free forwarding and address book export (effectively providing a jumping off point for users – one I found convenient recently when switching from the increasing bloat of the new Yahoo mail to Gmail, privacy be damned); and just as websites which link to other sites gain links in return – so a truncated form of universal Darwinian selection will eventually cull social networks based on the criteria of connectivity and selectivity. To rephrase, only the most flexible networks, allowing (and encouraging) interconnectivity with other social networks, mashups, linking with mobile / cellphone accounts, and connecting users to their butcher, baker and candlestick maker, will survive in the long term as social networks become truly mainstream. [Thankfully the web currently lacks implimentation of the bandwidth protectionism (read Net Neutrality) which has allowed Murdock Media to become an exclusive supplier of Digital Satellite television in Ireland and the UK. But don’t be surprised down the road, if services like MySpace lobby to restrict access to ‘unpoliced’ social networks]. Think about it, who’d use a telephone which could only call one set of friends? By contrast, services which provide selective connection will also find an evolutionary niche – humans love elites, and expertise is quantitatively valuable.
However, this prediction doesn’t apply to services which gain their value from user generated data. Famously, Gracenotes, the ubiquitous database powering music searches from iTunes album cover provision on down, effectively stole the labour and data generated by its original user community, as user satisfaction became the marginal utility of all that juicy data. Similarly, services like Flixster, Last FM and Allconsuming, built around the value of user generated data, have little to gain from interoperability, and no enterprise users to insist upon it. The open source community, though capable of replicating the functions of a service like del.icio.us, lack the drive to recreate such services under a more open model; services which are gradually becoming more ubiquitous and useful. So..What happens next? Do we all gradually slip into shiny Ajax powered Web2.0 sink wells, whilst waiting for the most popular social networks / web software providers to absorb them or adopt their functionality (the last alternative fails to solve the problem, as it doesn’t get at the knot of preexisting data, of enormous value to individual users)? Does customer demand and ‘outrage’ ultimately trump economics, forcing companies to wear their most valuable assets on their sleeves? Such an outcome is constantly predicted as the fall of DRM, but there can be no Bittorrent equivalent for web service databases. The irony here is that that the very limitations of the traditional software model, and the limits imposed by isolation on the capability of such software, kept data in users hands and ownership.
One could argue that services which don’t allow access to ‘base data’, as Tim O’Reilly refers to it, aren’t Web2.0 in the true sense of the term, but that’s irrelevant, as in the web as services model few companies fit all such criteria. Certainly one may export a document from Writely (now Google docs), but try exporting all your documents at once. What happens when you’ve got a hundred, or two years from now a couple of thousand? What about your revision history? What happens when your office suite sits online, allowing collaboration as never before, but with value added services tied to your current provider? What happens when the web becomes OS? As O’Reilly points out ‘The race is on to own certain classes of core data’, and in this race users may be the ultimate losers.