Geoffrey Meredith
Thoughts on Technology


(posted on 18 May 2008)
I've been following the various conversations about data portability between the various big social networks.  This is definitely a hotly debated space right now.  The funny thing is that there is this one tiny piece of information, a person's email address, that is really at the center of the controversy but no one has really brought up why.  The only reason that we don't want our email to get out there in an aggregated way is that the technology behind email can't really control how it is used.  So when our email address gets out there, we get spammed.  This is a highly emotional issue for a lot of people.  If it were possible to positively identify the sender of email, we would get very little spam (and those that did spam us would be blocked quickly) and we would not care nearly as much how this piece of data is distributed.  It's funny that an email address is specifically designed to be published so that others can find it and send us messages but we now want the publishing of that email address to be tightly controlled and describe it as data that we "own".  It would be so much better if we did not need to control how that is published because it's use would be controlled.

In the context of the social networks, many people (that do not have a vested interested in a social network) say that an email address is our own data and that we should have the right to control it.  The problem is that for it to be a useful piece of data is has to be freely available.  What's happened with Facebook this week is that although they have been pretending to be opening up their network, they realize that combination of the social graph and email address is the basis for their walled garden.  If that gets away, other social networks can reproduce the Facebook network and undermine it's value.  What I see as significantly more important is the social graph itself.  If we had a messaging identifier that was spam proof, then this would not need to be protected data.  We would want to be careful about allowing other to know who we know and interact with, at least at a real world level.  There is no value to society (except for sociology research) in having any one company build a social graph and there is a lot of harm can come from it (McCarthyism).  There is a value to that company in that they can use this social graph to advertise to you and in building walled gardens.  I prefer a model where my piece of the social graph lives completely in my control and I only provide that information when and to who I chose to, from time to time.  Just like it used to before Friendster and Facebook.  Humans just work that way.