Let’s get a grip on reality when it comes to Social Networks and Data Portability

Yesterday my good friend Louis Gray penned one of his best blog posts in some time. It is a very concise and clear look at the whole data portability issue that is a hot topic among the digerati of social media and social networks.

Equally important are some of the very interesting comments made on his post as they typify why people don’t understand the popularity of services like Twitter and Facebook; and why true data portability as Louis envisions is the last thing these services want.

Louis is absolutely correct when he writes

We don’t live in a data democracy. Every day, we give over more of our data to people we don’t know, whose motives we may not fully understand, and the possibility of our getting it back is very slim. Unlike in a democracy, we don’t get to vote in the leaders of companies who build the programs and sites that harness and manipulate our data. We don’t get to set term limits on CEOs or throw the bums out of corporate offices if our data is used in ways that are unsavory. And just like our tax dollars, we keep creating more and don’t always know where our data is going to end up.

The reason we don’t have, nor will we ever have, true data portability when it comes to services like Facebook is that these services are run by corporations, corporations that need to make money. In order for any corporation to make money, and keep their investors or shareholders happy, they need to have an edge that their competitors don’t have.

When it comes to social networks there is only one edge – constantly refreshed user data. It is that data, and that data alone that makes the company worth anything. Without that data constantly being refreshed none of these social networks have anything of value to offer other companies. One only has to look the the roadside of the Web and the litter of companies that failed to catch on.

It wasn’t that they failed to catch on with companies but rather they failed to keep the attention of the life blood of their business – the user. Without an active user base every single social style business will fail at some point. I’m not talking about the early adopter or web savvy tech oriented crowd either but rather the crowd that has made Facebook the behemoth that it is.

This is where the whole disconnect over why social networks exist, what makes them insanely popular; or not, and why data portability is a temporary loss leader. Just look at the comments made on Louis’ post to see why I say this in the responses to the comment I made. First someone called ‘I Dont’ writes

@Steven: The profitability comes from its users. If I chose to only participate in open projects as outlined above, and protest against anything that doesn’t abide to these principles, they will have to change it.

Then that is followed with a comment from Bruce Wayne

@SteveHodson….Portable data does not mean that there is no profitability ….In fact data portability can mean a move to equitable distribution of profit to members/data owners….Maybe we move to a point were the entire data harvesting process is transparent enough that a members must give specific consent to any entity that wants access to their data…and the member has the option of charging for this access…

Both of these comments are fairly indicative of the whole conversation around social networks and data portability and as a result one of the main points people aren’t getting.

Social Media and more importantly social networks were not created to ultimately benefit the users. Both these things came about because some very smart people saw the value of user generated content and then figured out a way to lump it under a recognizable brand name. Then everything was done to A) give them a reason to keep coming back and B) get them to share as much as possible in order to make that content marketable, one way or another.

What social networks and Social Media wasn’t created for was the early adopters and web savvy techie crowds. The insanely popular networks suffer through their periods of needing those two crowds in order to promote the services but at some point they all become more of a headache than anything else.

Social networks and Social Media were created for the 99% of the people that the early adopters and web savvy techies look down their noses at. Two perfect examples of this are Friendfeed and Google Buzz both of which have a very passionate following but is it a totally different following than what Facebook has.

Think not?

Then ask yourself this question – how popular would Facebook be if it didn’t have totally mindless social games or really pointless quizzes. Facebook has the needs of the mainstream down pat because the mainstream typically doesn’t care about silly things like privacy or advertising; and they definitely don’t give a rat’s ass about data portability. After all why should they since the chances of them becoming involved with another social network the way they are committed to Facebook is next to nil, hence the total lack of concern about data portability.

The mainstream is the fodder for the money machine that Facebook is becoming which means they have to do everything they can to get more people sharing more crap. It isn’t interested in mudding the waters, or endangering their profits, by doing more than they have to in order to appease a very small minority.

You see this is the main point – the early adopters and web savvy tech bunch are under the illusion that services like Facebook were created for them and as a result desperately need them. In fact the opposite is true – Facebook wasn’t built for that rarified groups of people nor does it care if you leave or stay.

You see Zuckerberg had the perfect teaching ground to learn what the mainstream wants – the university dorm. He didn’t start Facebook to make people like Robert Scoble, or Dave Winer, or even me and you. No, he started because he realized that people like to do mindless shit without any real concern for the consequences. He started it because he realized that he could make money, lots and lots of money, from people like that.

Facebook isn’t about idealism, or freedom, or being able to take your data with you like a spoiled kid taking his bat and ball home. Facebook is about making money and with 500 million users (and still growing) I’d say Zuckerberg has it figured out pretty well.