The inside-out social network

DISO-PROJECTAnne Zelenka of Web Worker Daily and GigaOM fame wrote me to ask what I meant by “building a social network with its skin inside out” when I was describing DiSo, the project that Steve Ivy and I (and now Will Norris) are working on.

Since understanding this change that I envision is crucial to the potential wider success of DiSo, I thought I’d take a moment and quote my reply about what I see are the benefits of social network built inside-out:

The analogy might sound a little gruesome I suppose, but I’m basically making the case for more open systems in an ecosystem, rather than investing or producing more closed off or siloed systems.

There are a number of reasons for this, many of which I’ve been blogging about lately.

For starters, “citizen centric web services” will arguably be better for people over the long term. We’re in the toddler days of that situation now, but think about passports and credit cards:

  • your passport provides proof of provenance and allows you to leave home without permanently give up your port of origin (equivalent: logging in to Facebook with your MySpace account to “poke” a friend — why do you need a full Facebook account for that if you’re only “visiting”?);
  • your credit/ATM cards are stored value instruments, making it possible for you to make transactions without cash, and with great convenience. In addition, while you should choose your bank wisely, you’re always able to withdraw your funds and move to a new bank if you want. This portability creates choice and competition in the marketplace and benefits consumers.

It’s my contention that, over a long enough time horizon, a similar situation in social networks will be better for the users of those networks, and that as reputation becomes portable and discoverable, who you choose to be your identity provider will matter. This is a significant change from the kind of temporariness ascribed by some social network users to their accounts today (see danah boyd).

Anyway, I’m starting with WordPress because it already has some of the building blocks in place. I also recognize that, as a white male with privilege, I can be less concerned about my privacy in the short term to prove out this model, and then, if it works, build in strong cross-silo privacy controls later on. (Why do I make this point? Well, because the network that might work for me isn’t one that will necessarily work for everyone, and so identifying this fact right now will hopefully help to reveal and prevent embedding any assumptions being built into the privacy and relationships model early on.)

Again, we’re in the beginning of all this now and there’ll be plenty of ill-informed people crying wolf about not wanting to join their accounts, or have unified reputation and so on, but that’s normal during the course of an inversion of norms. For some time to come, it’ll be optional whether you want to play along of course, but once people witness and come to realize the benefits and power of portable social capital, their tune might change.

But, as Tara pointed out to me today, the arguments for data portability thus far seem predicated on the wrong value statement. Data portability in and of itself is simply not interesting; keeping track of stuff in one place is hard enough as it is, let alone trying to pass it between services or manage it all ourselves, on our own meager hard drives. We need instead to frame the discussion in terms of real-world benefits for regular people over the situation that we have today and in terms of economics that people in companies who might invest in these technologies can understand, and can translate into benefits for both their customers and for their bottom lines.

I hate to put it in such bleak terms, but I’ve learned a bit since I embarked on a larger personal campaign to build technology that is firmly in the service of people (it’s a long process, believe me). What developers and technologists seem to want at this point in time is the ability to own and extract their data from web services to the end of achieving ultimate libertarian nirvana. While I am sympathetic to these goals and see them as the way to arriving at a better future, I also think that we must account for those folks for whom Facebook represents a clean and orderly experience worth the exchange of their personal data for an experience that isn’t confounding or alienating and gives them (at least the perception) of strong privacy controls. And so whatever solutions we develop, I think the objective should not be to obviate Facebook or MySpace, but to build systems and to craft technologies that will benefit and make such sites more sustainable and profitable, but only if they adopt the best practices and ideals of openness, individual choice and freedom of mobility.

As we architect this technology — keeping in mind that we are writing in code what believe should be the rights of autonomous citizens of the web — we must also keep in mind the wide diversity of the constituents of the web, that much of this has been debated and discussed by generations before us, and that our opportunity and ability to impose our desires and aspirations on the future only grows with our successes in freeing from the restraints that bind them, the current generation of wayward web citizens who have yet to be convinced that the vision we share will actually be an improvement over the way they experience “social networking” today.

Data banks, data brokers and citizen bargaining power

Sell to me

I wrote this this morning in a notebook as a follow up to my post yesterday… and since I don’t have time to clean it up now, I thought I’d present in raw, non-sensible form. Maybe there’s some value in a rough draft:

It’s like giving our money to a bank and having them turn around and sell our data to try to upsell us on loans and all kind of … oh wait, but the key difference is if we do get fed up, we can take our money out and go elsewhere, depriving the bank the ability to both target us with their partners’ ads and the ability to compound interest on our savings.

We need data brokers introduced into the system — organizations who are like safety deposit receptacles for our data — and who speak all APIs and actually advocate on our behalves for better service based on how “valuable” we are — this is necessary to top the scales in our favor — to reintroduce a balancing force into the marketplace because right now the choice to leave means dissing our friends — but if I’m not satisfied but still want to t talk to my friends, why can’t I be on the outside, but sending messages in? hell I’m willing to pay — in momentary access to my brokered personal profile — for access to my friends inside the silo. This is what Facebook is doing by shutting down so many accounts — it’s not personal — it’s protecting its business. They don’t want to become a myspace cesspool, succumb to empty profiles and Gresham’s Law — overrun with spam profiles and leeches and worthless profile data — a barren wasteland for advertisers who want to connect with that 8% of their customers who make up 32% of their revenue.

No it’s in data fidelity, richness, ironically FB took it upon themselves to weed out the bad from the good in their system-wide sweeps. Unfortunately they got it wrong a bunch of times. If Facebook allowed the export of data and became a data broker for its users — provided some citizen agency to its customers — there would be economic — as well as social — benefits to maintaining a clean and rich profile — beyond just expressiveness to one’s friends. For better or worse, FB users have a lot of benefit through the siloed apps of that F8 platform — but the grand vision should be closer to what Google’s marketing department christened “OpenSocial”… still though , the roles of banker and broker have yet to be made explicit and so we’ve leapt to “data portability” for nerds, forgetting that most people 1) don’t care about this stuff 2) are happy to exchange their data for services as long as their friends are doing it too 3) don’t want to be burdened with becoming their own libertarian banker! Dave Winer might want to keep everything in an XML file on his desktop, but I know few others who, IRL, feel the same way.

Thus concludes my rough notes.

So, if Facebook were perceived as a big Data Bank in the sky, how would that change things? Would people demand the ability to “withdraw” their data? Does the metaphor confuse or clarify? In any case, what is the role of data banks and data brokers? Is there a difference if the data container leverages the data for their own benefit? If they sell advertising and don’t provide a clear or universal means to opt-out? And what’s in the way of making more “benevolent” data vaults a reality — or how do we at least bring the concept into the discussion?

I have no personal interest the concept, only that’s a viable alternative to the siloed approach is missing from the discussion. And going back to the business models of OpenID and other identity providers… well, if any, that’s it. It’s like having a credit card with access to no credit — what’s the point? And OpenID becomes more valuable the more data capital it has access to. Or something like that.

Oh, and I’d like to quote something poignant that Anders Conbere said to me today in chat:

I was talking with my friend the other day and I tried to explain to him, that what I fear about facebook that I don’t fear about pretty much any other vendor is it’s continued developement as a competing platform to the web. a locked in, proprietary version and what I see, is just like Microsoft leveraged Windows as a “platform for application developement” facebook is doing that for web developement. what it offers developers is the simplicity and security of a stable developement environment at the cost of inovation because as we’ve seen, as market share grows, the ability to inovate decreases (since your success is tied to the backwards compatibility of your platform) and I see the possibility of facebook becoming a dominant platform for web application developement which will in turn lead to two decades of stagnation

So yeah, put that in your bonnet and smoke it. Or whatever.

Privacy, publicity and open data

Intelligence deputy to America: Rethink privacy - CNN.com

This one should be a quickie.

A fascinating article came out of CNN today: “Intelligence deputy to America: Rethink privacy“.

This is a topic I’ve had opinions about for some time. My somewhat pessimistic view is that privacy is an illusion, and that more and more historic vestiges of so-called privacy are slipping through our fingers with the advent of increasingly ubiquitous and promiscuous technologies, the results of which are not all necessarily bad (take a look at just how captivating the Facebook Newsfeed is!).

Still, the more reading I’ve been doing lately about international issues and conflict, the more I agree with Danny Weitzner that there needs to be a robust dialogue about what it means to live in a post-privacy era, and what demands we must place on those companies, governments and institutions that store data about us, about the habits to which we’re prone and about the friends we keep. He sums up the conversation space thus:

Privacy is not lost simply because people find these services useful and start sharing location. Privacy could be lost if we don’t start to figure what the rules are for how this sort of location data can be used. We’ve got to make progress in two areas:

  • technical: how can users sharing and usage preferences be easily communicated to and acted upon by others? Suppose I share my location with a friend by don’t want my employer to know it. What happens when my friend, intentionally or accidentally shares a social location map with my employer or with the public at large? How would my friend know that this is contrary to the way I want my location data used? What sorts of technologies and standards are needed to allow location data to be freely shared while respective users usage limitation requirements?
  • legal: what sort of limits ought there to be on the use of location data?
  • can employers require employees to disclose real time location data?
  • is there any difference between real-time and historical location data traces? (I doubt it)
  • under what conditions can the government get location data?

There’s clearly a lot to think about with these new services. I hope that we can approach this from the perspective that lots of location data will being flowing around and realize the the big challenge is to develop social, technical and legal tools to be sure that it is not misused.

I want to bring some attention to his first point about the technical issues surrounding New Privacy. This is the realm where we play, and this is the realm where we have the most to offer. This is also an area that’s the most contentious and in need of aggressive policies and leadership, because the old investment model that treats silos of data as gold mines has to end.

I think Tim O’Reilly is really talking about this when he lambasts Google’s OpenSocial, proclaiming, “It’s the data, stupid!” The problem of course is what open data actually means in the context of user control and ownership, in terms of “licensing” and in terms of proliferation. These are not new problems for technologists as permissioning dates back to the earliest operating systems, but the problem becomes infinitely complex now that it’s been unbounded and non-technologists are starting to realize a) how many groups have been collecting data about them and b) how much collusion is going on to analyze said data. (Yeah, those discounts that that Safeway card gets you make a lot more money for Safeway than they save you, you better believe it!)

With Donald Kerr, the principal deputy director of national intelligence, taking an equally pessimistic (or Apocalyptic) attitude about privacy, I think there needs to be a broader, eyes-wide-open look at who has what data about whom and what they’re doing about — and perhaps more importantly — how the people about whom the data is being collected can get in on the game and get access to this data in the same way you’re guaranteed access and the ability to dispute your credit report. The same thing should be true for web services, the government and anyone else who’s been monitoring you, even if you’ve been sharing that information with them willingly. In another post, I talked about the value of this data — calling it “Data Capital“. People need to realize the massive amount of value that their data adds to the bottom line of so many major corporations (not to mention Web 2.0 startups!) and demand ongoing and persistent access to it. Hell, it might even result in better or more accurate data being stored in these mega-databases!

Regardless, when representatives from the government start to say things like:

Those two generations younger than we are have a very different idea of what is essential privacy, what they would wish to protect about their lives and affairs. And so, it’s not for us to inflict one size fits all, said Kerr, 68. Protecting anonymity isn’t a fight that can be won. Anyone that’s typed in their name on Google understands that.

Our job now is to engage in a productive debate, which focuses on privacy as a component of appropriate levels of security and public safety, Kerr said. I think all of us have to really take stock of what we already are willing to give up, in terms of anonymity, but [also] what safeguards we want in place to be sure that giving that doesn’t empty our bank account or do something equally bad elsewhere.

…you know that it’s time we started framing the debate on our own terms… thinking about what this means to the Citizen Centric Web and about how we want to become the gatekeepers for the data that is both rightfully ours and that should willfully be put into the service of our own needs and priorities.

OpenSocial and Address Book 2.0: Putting People into the Protocol

Obey by Shepard FaireyI wonder if Tim O’Reilly knows something that he’s not telling the rest of us. Or maybe he knows something that the rest of us know, but that we haven’t been able to articulate yet. Who knows.

In any case, he’s been going on about this “Address Book 2.0for awhile, and if you ask me, it has a lot to do with Google’s upcoming announcement of a set of protocols, formats and technologies they’ve dubbed OpenSocial.

[Aside: I’ll just point out that I like the fact that the name has “open” in it (even if “open” will be the catchphrase that replaces the Web 2.0 meme) because it means that in order to play along, you have to be some shade of open. I mean, if Web 2.0 was all about having lots of bits and parts all over the place and throwing them together just-in-time in the context of a “social” experience, then being “open” will be what separates those who are caught up and have been playing along from those who have been asleep at the wheel for the past four years. Being “open” (or the “most” open) is the next logical stage of the game, where being anything other than open will be met with a sudden and painless death. This is a good thing™ for the web, but remember that we’re in the infancy of the roll-out here, and mistakes (or brilliant insights) will define what kind of apps we’re building (or able to build) for the next 10 years.]

Let me center the context here. A few days ago, I wrote about putting people in the protocol. I was talking about another evolution that will come alongside the rush to be open (I should note that “open” is an ongoing process, not an endpoint in and of itself). This evolution will be painful for those who resist but will bring great advantage to those who embrace it. It’s pretty simple and if you ask me, it lies at the heart of Tim’s Address Book 2.0 and Google’s OpenSocial; in a word, it’s people.

Before I get into that, let me just point out what this is not about. Fortunately, in his assessment of “What to Look for from Google’s Social Networking Platform“, David Card at Jupiter Research spelled it out in blindingly incorrect terms:

As an analyst who used to have the word “Unix” on his business card, I’ve seen a lot of “open” “consortia” fail miserably. Regular readers know my Rule of Partnership: For a deal to be important, two of the following three must occur:

– Money must change hands
– There must be exclusivity
– Product must ship

“Open” “consortia” aren’t deals. That’s one of the reasons they fail. The key here would be “Product must ship.”

This completely misses the point. This is why the first bubble was so lame. So many people had third-world capital in their heads and missed what’s new: the development, accumulation and exchange of first-world social capital through human networks.

Now, the big thing that’s changed (or is changing) is the emphasis on the individual and her role across the system. Look at MyBlogLog. Look at Automattic’s purchase of Gravatar. Look at the sharp rise in OpenID adoption over the past two years. The future is in non-siloed living man! The future is in portable, independent identities valid, like Visa, everywhere that you want to be. It’s not just about social network fatigue and getting fed up with filling out profiles at every social network you join and re-adding all your friends. Yeah, those things are annoying but more importantly, the fact that you have to do it every time just to get basic value from each system means that each has been designed to benefit itself, rather than the individuals coming and going. The whole damn thing needs to be inverted, and like recently rejoined ant segments dumped from many an ant farm, the fractured, divided, shattered into a billion fragments-people of the web must rejoin themselves and become whole in the eyes of the services that, what else?, serve them!

Imagine this: imagine designing a web service where you don’t store the permanent records of facets of people, but instead you simply build services that serve people. In fact, it’s no longer even in your best interest to store data about people long term because, in fact, the data ages so rapidly that it’s next to useless to try to keep up with it. Instead, it’s about looking across the data that someone makes transactionally available to you (for a split second) and offering up the best service given what you’ve observed when similar fingerprint-profiles have come to your system in the past. It’s not so much about owning or storing Address Book 2.0 as much as being ready when all the people that populate the decentralized Address Book 2.0 concept come knocking at your door. Are you going to be ready to serve them immediately or asking them to fill out yet another profile form?

Maybe I’m not being entirely clear here. Admittedly, these are rough thoughts in my head right now and I’m not really self-editing. Forgive me.

But I think that it’s important to say something before the big official announcement comes down, so that we can pre-contextualize this and realize the shift that’s happening even as the hammer drops.

Look, if Google and a bunch of chummy chums are going to make available a whole slew of “social graph” material, we had better start realizing what this means. And we had better start realizing the value that our data and our social capital have in this new eco-system. Forget page views. Forget sticky eyeballs. With OpenID, with OAuth, with microformats, with, yes, with FOAF and other formats — hell with plain ‘ol scrapable HTML! — Google and co. will be amassing a social graph the likes of which has yet to be seen or twiddled upon (that’s a technical term). It means that we’re [finally] moving towards a citizen-centric web and it means great things for the web. It means that things are going to get interesting, for Facebook, for MySpace, for Microsoft, for Yahoo! (who recently closed 360, btw!) And y’know, I don’t know what Spiderman would think of OpenSocial or of what else’s coming down the pipe, but I’m sure in any case, he’d caution that, with great power comes great responsibility.

I’m certainly excited about this, but it’s not all about Google. Moreover, OpenSocial is simply an acknowledgment that things have to (and have) change(d). What comes next is anyone’s guess, but as far as I’m concerned, Tim’s been more or less in the ballpark so far, it just won’t necessarily be about owning the Address Book 2.0, but what it means when it’s taken for granted as a basic building block in the vast clockwork of the open social web.

Twitter hashtags for emergency coordination and disaster relief

I know I’ve been beating the drum about hashtags for a while. People are either lukewarm to them or are annoyed and hate them. I get it. I do. But for some stupid reason I just can’t leave them alone.

Anyway, today I think I saw a glimmer of the promise of the hashtag concept revealed.

For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, consider this status update:

Twitter / nate ritter: #sandiegofire 300,000 peopl...

You’ll notice that the update starts out with “#sandiegofire”. That’s a hashtag. The hash is the # symbol and the tag is sandiegofire. Pretty simple.

Why use them? Well, it’s like adding metadata to your updates in a simple and consistent way. They’re not the most beautiful things ever, but they’re pretty easy to use. They also follow Jaiku’s channel convention to some extent, but break it in that you can embed hashtags into your actual post, like so:

Twitter / Mr Messina: @nateritter thanks for keep...

Following the , this simple design means that you can get more mileage out of your 140 characters than you might otherwise if you had to specify your tags separately or in addition to your content.

Anyway, you get the idea.

Hashtags become all the more useful now that Twitter supports the “track” feature. By simply sending ‘track [keyword]‘ to Twitter by IM or SMS, you’ll get real-time updates from across the Twitterverse. It’s actually super useful and highly informative.

Hashtags become even more useful in a time of crisis or emergency as groups can rally around a common term to facilitate tracking, as demonstrated today with the San Diego fires (in fact, it was similar situations around Bay Area earthquakes that lead me to propose hashtags in the first place, as I’d seen people Twittering about earthquakes and felt that we needed a better way to coordinate via Twitter).

Earlier today, my friend Nate Ritter started twittering about the San Diego fires, starting slowly and without any kind of uniformity to his posts. He eventually began prefixing his posts with “San Diego Fires”. Concerned that it would be challenging for folks to track “san diego fires” on Twitter because of inconsistency in using those words together, I wanted to apply hashtags as a mechanism for bringing people together around a common term (that Stowe Boyd incidently calls groupings).

I first checked Flickr’s Hot Tags to see what tag(s) people were already using to describe the fires:

Popular Tags on Flickr Photo Sharing

I picked “” — the tag that I thought had the best chance to be widely adopted, and that would also be recognizable in a stream of updates. I pinged Nate and around 4pm with my suggestion, and he started using it. Meanwhile, Dan Tentler (a co-organizer who I met at ETECH last year) was also twittering, blogging and shooting his experience, occasionally using #sandiegofire as his tag. Sometime later Adora (aka Lisa Brewster, another BarCamp San Diego co-organizer) posted a status using the #sandiegofire hashtag.

Had we had a method to disperse the information, we could have let people on Twitter know to track #sandiegofire and to append that hashtag to their updates in order to join in on the tracking stream (for example, KBPS News would have been easier to find had they been using the tag) (I should point out that the Twitter track feature actually ignores the hashmark; it’s useful primarily to denote the tag as metadata in addition to the update itself) .

Fortunately, Michael Calore from Wired picked up the story, but it might have come a little late for the audience that might have benefitted the most (that is, folks with Twitter SMS in or around affected areas).

In any case, hashtags are far from perfect. I have no illusions about this.

But they do represent what I think is a solid convention for coordinating ad-hoc groupings and giving people a way to organize their communications in a way that the tool (Twitter) does not currently afford. They also leave open the possibility for external application development and aggregation, since a Twitter user’s track terms are currently not made public (i.e. there is no way for me to know what other people are tracking across Twitter in the same way that I can see which tags have the most velocity across Flickr). So sure, they need work, but the example of #sandiegofire now should provide a very clear example of the problem I’d like to see solved. Hashtags are my best effort at working on this problem to date; I wonder what better ideas are out there waiting to be proposed?

And you wonder why people in America are afraid of the Internet

Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to present to you two exhibits.

Here is Exhibit A from today’s International Herald Tribune:

Will Google take the mobile world of Jaiku onto the Web? - International Herald Tribune

In contrast (Exhibit B) we have the same exact article, but with a completely different headline:

Google’s Purchase of Jaiku Raises New Privacy Issues - New York Times

Now, for the life of me, I can’t figure out how the latter is a more accurate or more appropriate title for the article, which is ostensibly about Google’ acquisition of Jaiku.

But, for some reason, the editor of the NY Times piece decided that it would — what? — sell more papers? — to use a more incendiary and moreover misleading headline for the story.

Here’s why I take issue: I’m quoted in the article. And here’s where the difference is made. This is how the how the article ends:

“To date, many people still maintain their illusion of privacy,” he said in an e-mail message.

Adapting will take time.

“For iPhone users who use the Google Maps application, it’s already a pain to have to type in your current location,” he said. “‘Why doesn’t my phone just tell Google where I am?’ you invariably ask.”

When the time is right and frustrations like this are unpalatable enough, Mr. Messina said, “Google will have a ready answer to the problem.”

Consider the effect of reading that passage after being lead with a headline like “Google’s Purchase of Jaiku Raises New Privacy Issues” versus “Will Google take the mobile world of Jaiku onto the Web?” The latter clearly raises the specter of Google-as-Big-Brother while ignoring the fallacy that privacy, as people seem to understand it, continues to exist. Let’s face it: if you’re using a cell phone, the cell phone company knows where you are. It’s just a matter of time before you get an interface to that data and the illusion that somehow you gave Google (or any other third party) access to your whereabouts.

I for one do not understand how this kind of headline elevates or adds to the discourse, or how it helps people to better understand and come to gripes with the changing role and utility of their presence online. While I do like the notion that any well-engineered system can preserve one’s privacy while still being effective, I contend that it’s going to take a radical reinterpretation of what we think is and isn’t private to feel secure in who can and can’t see data about us.

So, to put it simply, there are no “new” privacy issues raised by Google’s acquisition of Jaiku; it’s simply the same old ones over and over again that we seem unable to deal with in any kind of open dialogue in the mainstream press.

Data capital, or: data as common tender

Legal TenderWikipedia states that … is payment that, by law, cannot be refused in settlement of a debt denominated in the same currency. , in turn, is a unit of exchange, facilitating the transfer of goods and/or services.

I was asked a question earlier today about the relative value of open services against open data served in open, non-proprietary data formats. It got me thinking whether — in the pursuit of utter openness in web services and portability in stored data — that’s the right question. Are we providing the right incentives for people and companies to go open? Is it self-fulfilling or manifest destiny to arrive at a state of universal identity and service portability leading to unfettered consumer choice? Is this how we achieve VRM nirvana, or is there something missing in our assumptions and current analysis?

Mary Jo Foley touched on this topic today in a post called Are all ‘open’ Web platforms created equal? She asks the question whether Microsoft’s PC-driven worldview can be modernized to compete in the network-centric world of Web 2.0 where no single player dominates but rather is made up of Best of Breed APIs/services from across the Web. The question she alludes to is a poignant one: even if you go open (and Microsoft has, by any estimation), will anyone care? Even if you dress up your data and jump through hoops to please developers, will they actually take advantage of what you have to offer? Or is there something else to the equation that we’re missing? Some underlying truism that is simply refracting falsely in light of the newfound sexiness of “going open”?

We often tell our clients that one of the first things you can do to “open up” is build out an API, support microformats, adopt OpenID and OAuth. But that’s just the start. That’s just good data hygiene. That’s brushing your teeth once a day. That’s making sure your teeth don’t fall out of your head.

There’s a broader method to this madness, but unfortunately, it’s a rare opportunity when we actually get beyond just brushing our teeth to really getting to sink them in, going beyond remedial steps like adding microformats to web pages to crafting just-in-time, distributed open-data-driven web applications that actually do stuff and make things better. But as I said, it’s a rare occasion for us because we’ve all been asking the wrong questions, providing the wrong incentives and designing solutions from the perspective of the silos instead of from the perspective of the people.

Let me make a point here: if your data were legal tender, you could take it anywhere with you and it couldn’t be refused if you offered to pay with it.

Last.fm top track chartsLet me break that down a bit. The way things are today, we give away our data freely and frequently, in exchange for the use of certain services. Now, in some cases, like Pandora or Last.fm, the use of the service itself is compelling and worthwhile, providing an equal or greater exchange rate for our behavior or taste data. In many other cases, we sign up for a service and provide basic demographic data without any sense of what we’re going to get in return, often leaving scraps of ourselves to fester all across the internet. Why do we value this data so little? Why do we give it away so freely?

I learned of an interesting concept today while researching legal tender called “Gresham’s Law” and commonly stated as: When there is a legal tender currency, bad money drives good money out of circulation.

Don’t worry, it took me a while to get it too. Nicolas Nelson offered the following clarification: if high quality and low quality are forced to be treated equally, then folks will keep good quality things to themselves and use low quality things to exchange for more good stuff.

Think about this in terms of data: if people are forced (or tricked) into thinking that the data that they enter into web applications is not being valued (or protected) by the sites that collect the data, well, eventually they’ll either stop entering the data (heard of social network fatigue?) or they’ll start filling them with bogus information, leading to “bad data” driving out the “good data” from the system, ultimately leading to a kind of data inflation, where suddenly the problem is no longer getting people to just sign up for your service, but to also provide good data of some value. And this is where data portability — or data as legal tender — starts to become interesting and allows us to start seeing around through the distortion of the refraction.

Think: Data as currency. Data to unlock services. Data owned, controlled, exchanged and traded by the creator of said data, instead of by the networks he has joined. For the current glut of web applications to maintain and be sustained, we must move to a system where people are in charge of their data, where they garden and maintain it, and where they are free to deposit and withdraw it from web services like people do money from banks.

If you want to think about what comes next — what the proverbial “Web 3.0” is all about — it’s not just about a bunch of web applications hooked up with protocols like OAuth that speak in microformats and other open data tongue back and forth to each other. That’s the obvious part. The change comes when a person is in control of her data, and when the services that she uses firmly believe that she not only has a right to do as she pleases with her data, but that it is in their best interest to spit her data out in whatever myriad format she demands and to whichever myriad services she wishes.

The “data web” is still a number of years off, but it is rapidly approaching. It does require that the silos popular today open up and transition from repositories to transactional enterprises. Once data becomes a kind of common tender, you no longer need to lock it; in fact, the value comes from its reuse and circulation in commerce.

To some degree, Mint and Wesabe are doing this retroactively for your banking records, allowing you to add “data value” to the your monetary transactions. Next up Google and Microsoft will do this for your health records. For a more generic example, Swivel is doing this today for the OECD but has a private edition coming soon. Slife/Slifeshare, i use this and RescueTime do this for your use of desktop apps.

This isn’t just attention data that I’m talking about (though the recent announcements in support of APML are certainly positive). This goes beyond monitoring what you’re doing and how you’re spending your time. I’m talking about access to all the data that it would take to reconstitute your entire digital existence. And then I’m talking about the ability to slice, dice, and splice it however you like, in pursuit of whatever ends you choose. Or choose not to.


I’ll point to a few references that influenced my thinking: Social Capital To Show Its Worth at This Week’s Web 2.0 Summit, What is Web 2.0?, Tangled Up in the Future – Lessig and Lietaer, , Intentional Economics Day 1, Day 2, Day 3.