Data portability may be boring, but boring is necessary

In technology, boring is normally necessary. Sexy technology is what everyone wants to talk about and work on. In the corporate world, there is a lot of boring going on. Administrative applications are not complicated, and typically use standard methods and proven technologies. Given that, boring probably makes the world go round. This is why I find the Data Portability is Boring article rather flawed. The author makes some assumptions about the internet that may be true, but applying them to leading edge technology or websites like social networking is where the comparison fails.

The number of mainstream Internet users I know who are getting their panties in a knot over data portability is … close to zero.

Mainstream internet users probably have never heard of data portability. This is because it is not part of mainstream news. Something like data portability will be considered “infrastructure”, so mainstream users will only benefit from something that they do not understand.

It’s really only a small but vocal portion of the Internet population comprised primarily of technologists and Web 2.0 kool aid sippers who are beating the drum for data portability.

A small number of people being vocal about anything is fairly typical of new “causes”. I will not call data portability a “cause”, but it is a technology issue. Technologists are the people fighting for this because they are the people creating these sites as well as being the early adopters of new social sites. All of this is very logical at this point.

The author then talks about 3 key things technologists do not consider:

  1. The average Internet user probably isn’t an active member of dozens of Web 2.0 services.
  2. The average Internet user probably doesn’t need or want to take his friends along to every Web 2.0 service he or she signs up for.
  3. Privacy is just as important as openness.

These 3 items are where the author makes his mistake (in my opinion). First, the average internet user only uses the sites that become popular by early adopters, typically technology savvy people. The average internet user is not what I would call tech-savvy. The burden of early adopters is to test the applications and determine if there are any issues with the application. If you are the average internet user, you probably have an account on MySpace (or Facebook), Flickr and YouTube. You might even dabble a little on Digg. Now that all of these services have some notion of “friends”, it would be nice to have your MySpace friends on Flickr and YouTube. It is purely a convenience issue. This is especially true now that most news sites are incorporating Digg-style voting and minimal community (or even full social networks) features. Internet users are notoriously lazy, and want everything for free. So why can we not take our friends from one site to another?

Data portability is important, and so is privacy, but how are they opposites? It is not as if the plan is to ignore privacy when implementing data portability. In some respects, data portability reinforces privacy. If you do not want your profile information copied from one site to another, then that would be an option. Only a bad implementation of data portability would violate privacy. That is another reason why technologists need to voice their opinion now. Also, the average internet user does not understand the technology involved or the issues with privacy.

The author closes with a very funny quote:

Data portability is about as exciting as herpes. As much as it’s attracting attention, the average person just doesn’t want it. And yet, just like herpes, you can be sure it’s a topic that isn’t going away.

If the average MySpace user finds out that he cannot take his friends with him and he decided to use Flickr or YouTube, they will get very annoyed and start complaining about how stupid it all is. They do not know it yet, but they will be very happy that people fought for data portability.

6 thoughts on “Data portability may be boring, but boring is necessary

  1. Well said. Data portability IS boring. To your average user, that is. To the folks behind the scenes, it’s anything but. The goal with this technology is to become invisible to the average user, as with any such back-end tech.


  2. You adeptly skirted the privacy issue.

    If you liked Facebook Beacon…you’ll LOVE Data Portability….

    Every spammer in Eastern Europe and the Caribbean is hoping this keeps gaining steam! They’ll be the first to flirt and sucker their way to 1000+ “friends” on every network they can, and will happily copy all their info into a database which they’ll begin selling ASAP.

    Hooray for idealists!


  3. @Idiocracy

    There is not much to stop them from doing this now. The difference is that they use the networks themselves to spam everyone. Data portability has to be an opt-in policy as well. If you do not want your email address shared with everyone, then that should be allowed and the default. I do agree that data portability does make the spammers job easier if everyone shares their data with them. I know that some level of configurability and security is being considered in the data portability group.

    Also, thank you for saying privacy was adeptly skirted. At least I did that well 🙂


  4. @idiocracy

    Just because there are barriers to doing something right doesn’t mean that thing is not worth doing. Privacy is clearly a stumbling-block, but it’s not a reason to drop the idea completely.


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