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Sarah UKFast | Account Manager

Data portability - a red herring?

If you are to believe data portability proponents, one of the biggest challenges facing the internet today is the difficulty users have in sharing their data across multiple services.

Users that have invested time building up their profiles and "social graphs" on one social network, for instance, have no easy way to transfer all of their data when joining or moving to another service that leverages the same type of data.

This past week has seen a number of moves on the part of large players in the social networking space that are supposed to bring social network users much closer to the dream of "data portability."

On May 8, MySpace announced MySpace Data Availability, which will allow its users to share their profile data with other popular social networking services and internet services. "The walls around the garden are coming down," declared MySpace CEO Chris DeWolfe.

Not to be outdone, Facebook followed MySpace's announcement with one of its own. Its Facebook Connect is the next iteration of Facebook Platform that allows users to "'connect' their Facebook identity, friends and privacy to any site."

Google, which has been forced to take a different approach to social networks because it lacks a social networking property that rivals the popularity of MySpace and Facebook in the US and Europe, is vying for data portability supremacy in a different fashion.

Google Friend Connect is designed to...

..."connect sites and users from around the world with similar interests by adding web 2.0 functionality to previously static web pages."

Many in the Web 2.0 community believe data portability is the best thing since sliced bread, but I've argued that it is, for the most part, something technologists have made more important than it really is:

"The truth is that the average mainstream Internet user doesn’t look at Facebook as a warehouse for data; Facebook is merely a place to socialize with friends and poke hot coeds.

I’m sure users wouldn’t complain if there was an easy way to take certain data from one service to another, but by in large, I think the technologists pushing for data portability are trying to supply something that there isn’t a whole lot of demand for."

There is no point in rehashing the same points that I made previously and that I feel no need to revise. I do, however, think that the recent announcements are worthwhile to address.

They highlight the fact that unified data portability standards are unlikely to be implemented by the major players. As evidenced by the recently-announced initiatives, even if services like MySpace and Facebook go "open," the chances that they do so in the same fashion is improbable.

Thus, the fragmentation that has occurred between services occurs between data portability regimes as well.

Unless you're a naive idealist, this is all to be expected.

Even if companies decide that data portability has value to their business (or decide that paying lip service to it is beneficial), they each have their own unique visions and interests. This is reflected in the different ways they'll go about implementing data portability.

Beyond whether or not mainstream users really desire it, the biggest question raised by increasingly obvious fragmentation in the world of data portability is whether it will even give data portability a shot at success.

After all, if data portability initiatives are not implemented in a manner that makes them appealing to and readily and practically usable by mainstream users, data portability will never be more than a technologist's pipe dream.

Finally, for companies investing time and resources in becoming more "open" through data portability, I think it makes sense to take a step back and look at the big picture.

While it would be naive to assume that companies operating popular services can retain all of their users in perpetuity and can offer their users everything they want in a single place, I think it's worth considering that the most worthwhile investments are made in striving to evolve their services to meet the core needs and desires of their users.

Making it easy for users to "leave" (or "share" their data with other services) should not be emphasized at the expense of giving them compelling reasons to "stay."

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