With more than 250 million people using Facebook and the marketing-research company comScore estimating that Twitter’s Web site attracted 44.5 million unique visitors in June, social-media sites have become central to how many people interact with each other. As we use these sites more and more, a great deal of data is being generated.
The data we’re sharing through social-media sites ranges from our name, age, gender, and location to the names of the people we friend and follow, what we’re interested in, and the causes we support. It also includes user-created data, such as tweets on Twitter, photos on Flickr, and notes shared through Facebook.
A question that’s increasingly being raised is, who should control all of this data—the user or the service?
Zak Greant, a Vancouver-based open-source advocate and owner of the Internet consultancy firm Foo Associates, argues that as social-media sites increase in popularity, they need to address calls for greater openness.
“They have something that not even the great surveillance states of the past had, which is this complete record of social interactions in one important space for a large group of people,” Greant told the Georgia Straight by phone.
This user data is invaluable to companies like Facebook. If you write about wanting to find bubble tea in Richmond, that can help Facebook target advertising based on your interests and location.
What concerns those who advocate having more open social-media services is that users often have no say in how their data is used. I may be fine with a service telling advertisers that I live in Vancouver and like comic books written by Brian Bendis, but I might not be okay with the service taking information that I share with a friend about my erectile dysfunction and passing that on to advertisers.
For advocates, an open social-media site is one that gives users control over how their data is used, as well as the ability to remove their data. Openness in this context also means making decisions in a transparent fashion on how user data is handled, and using open standards that allow users to easily interact with other sites.
Public-policy expert David Eaves, who blogs at eaves.ca/, noted that Facebook has seen push-back from users over its advertising practices.
“They’ve made decisions that they tried to impose without consulting with the community,” Eaves told the Straight in a local coffee shop. “Their governance model is corporate in that ”˜We make a decision and we mean it,’ and that backfired on them.”
Eaves continued, “I only put things into Facebook that I generate elsewhere now. Getting it [my content] out of Facebook is a real nightmare, and I may never be able to do it. So they’ve kind of generated a barrier to entry, not for me as a user but for me as a creator.”
It’s an issue Mark Surman, executive director of the Mozilla Foundation—the California-based organization that develops the Firefox Web browser and other open-source applications, and promotes an open Internet—has thought about a lot.
“The biggest risk for an end user is that your data is locked up inside somebody else’s silo,” Surman told the Straight by phone. “So as much as it feels great that I can participate and I can connect and share with my friends, there are real lock-ins to using these services.”
Surman cited the Mozilla Labs project Weave as an example of a service that allows users to protect and control their data.
“Weave syncs your bookmarks and your passwords between Firefox on multiple computers,” he said. “It’s set up so that you can encrypt that on one computer; pass it to our computer, which synchronizes it; and bring it back down to your other computer and de-encrypt it. So that even if Mozilla were in the business of running that service which helps with identity and helps with connection and helps with relationships, we can never see that, and even if someone got to the server they could never do anything with it.”
Google’s Orkut, a social-networking site popular in Brazil and India, uses an open application platform called OpenSocial, which Google and a number of other social-media services developed and released in 2007. Users of sites like Orkut, MySpace, and Friendster can access their data, such as contact lists, photos, and written entries, on other OpenSocial-supporting sites and mobile applications.
“It was adopted by nearly all of the social networks in the world, except for Facebook and Microsoft,” Patrick Chanezon, Google’s OpenSocial evangelist, told the Straight by phone from Mountain View, California.
One example of a completely open social-media service is Identi.ca. This Twitter-like microblogging service aims to give users full control over their data. It’s based on the open-source Laconica platform, which allows people to copy and manipulate its code and even build a similar site elsewhere. Users of Identi.ca can subscribe to the feeds of users of other sites that support the OpenMicroBlogging protocol, and vice versa. People can sign into Identi.ca using OpenID, an open standard that allows users to log onto different sites with the same digital identity.
As people find themselves joining multiple social-media services, a growing number want to be able to export their data from one service to another, and want a say in who sees their private information. A more open Internet—and more open social-media sites—promises to give users greater control over their data.