Who Controls Your Data?

by Doc Searls

The main problem with "social networking" isn't just that your "social" life has corporate boundaries. It's that your personal choices do too.

For example, in TechCrunch today, Mike Arrington writes this in Three’s Company Or Three’s A Crowd? Google To Launch “Friend Connect” On Monday:

The reason these companies are 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).

Mike's point about OpenID may be correct, although I think OpenID appeals because it's relatively easy and uncomplicated, and not tainted by any BigCo's "brand".

But that's a side issue. The main issue is that one's "social" choices are between BigCo-hosted habitats. The shift now is away from walled gardens to gardens where you can move your data from one to another — a procedure called federation.

Even if your data is portable, they're still a problem if you're still a guest in a "space" where your data is "controlled" by one corporate gardener or another.

Excuse me, but I'd rather control my own data. Talk vendor sports all day long if you like, cut at the end of that day I want all walled gardeners to use my data at my grace.

That's why I like Joe Andrieu's angle on the user as point of integration. Sez Joe:

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.

This is a profound shift that has some interesting parallels with a concept in AI called "stigmergy" and with a bit of classic Einstein becomes a totally new way to think about next generation systems design. In other words VRM changes the landscape in a way that not only makes life better for individuals, it profoundly improves the information architecture that modern society depends on.

VRM is Vendor Relationship Management. It's where you manage the vendors, rather than vice versa, which is what CRM is about. Of course management needs to work both ways, if "relationship" is to be meaningful at all. Joe continues,

User control is critically important. It resonates with the core of the modern social contract. Freedom. Liberty. Capitalism. The Age of Reason. Liberalism. These systems and ideologies all assume that the individual, and only the individual, has legitimate moral authority over his or her life, assets and the disposition of both.

That gets lost when all you care about is vendor sports. Or worse, vendor war. As Dave Winer pointed out yesterday, "The tech industry is organized around the concept of wars".

The tech industry is organized around the concept of wars. In recent memory, the browser wars, the Java wars, before that there were wars over email APIs, desktops, GUIs, networking standards, you name it, if there's money to be made in controlling users, there's been a war to lock those users in. It's been that way since the dawn of time, and it will always be that way. It's in human nature.

It's also in human nature for the users to realize they're being used, get fed up, and create or discover the technology for themselves thereby routing around all the warring parties.

So what's beating back Internet Explorer today? Mozilla, the ghost of Netscape. I would bet that today far more money is being made because of Mozilla than was ever made by Netscape.

I covered the "browser war" in Make Money, Not War, back in March, 1997. No magazine wanted it, so I published it myself, two years before the Age of Blogs began. In that piece I placed the blame on human nature as well:

... we understand business -- as we understand just about everything -- in metaphorical terms. As it happens, our understanding of companies and markets is largely structured by the metaphors BUSINESS IS WAR and MARKETS ARE BATTLEFIELDS.

By those metaphors we share an understanding that companies fight battles over market territories that they attack, defend, dominate, yield or abandon. Their battlefields contain beacheads, bunkers, foxholes, sectors, streams, hills, mountains, swamps, streams, rivers, landslides, quagmires, mud, passages, roadblocks, and high ground. In fact, the metaphor BUSINESS IS WAR is such a functional conceptual system that it unconsciously pumps out clichés like a machine. And since sports is a sublimated and formalized kind of war, the distances between sports and war metaphors in business are so small that the vocabularies mix without clashing.

In a speech a few years back, Guy Kawasaki said he liked to have business plans reviewed by women in the office at Garage.com, because so many of those plans came from men whose startup business goal was "to kill other companies".

Back in the present, Dave adds,

Having seen a number of these wars, and seeing each of them end not in triumph, but irrelevance, I believe we're getting closer to the end in the warfare defined by social networks. That's the real lesson behind this article by Mike Arrington, about the three companies throwing vapor at each other, two publicly, MySpace and Facebook, and Google in the back channel. Somewhere lurking back there are Microsoft and Yahoo, each with also-rans no doubt coming soon. I wouldn't pay too much attention to what the big players do here, they will be too constrained by BigCo thought processes, and a desire to appear to be giving stuff away without actually giving anything away.

Open is a funny thing, you can't be partially open. You can't edge your way toward open. You can't be open and hold the valuable stuff in reserve for yourself. BigCo's can't afford to do what it takes to coalesce a popular maturing technology around their own platform. It won't happen in BigCoLand. Only a little dude with nothing to lose can choose to build around something truly open. (The big guys are always forced to, eventually.)

I believe there is only way we can force the big guys to drop their weapons and start seeing better ways to make money — and do it every time. That's to create PersonLand. MyLand. (I'd like to say Userland, but it's been used already — by the company Dave created long before any us were talking about any of this stuff.) That requires building tools and creating or adopting standards that make each of us the point of integration for our own data. Sez Dave,

My guess, if I had to make one, is that the social network that we will all be building on in the coming years is already out there.

Mine too. Alec Muffett's Feeds-based VRM is one example. I'm hoping it, along with many other fresh user-equipping hacks, will be discussed at the IIW — Internet Identity Workshop, which I'll be missing for the first time. Unfortunately there's a schedule conflict with [email protected], where I have superceding commitments. (Wish I had a clone, but I don't.)

Whatever happens, in the long run "siding with customers" will change from business BS to business necessity. Because there won't be any choice. The customers will have too many ways to relate, and not just to pay.

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