Data Portability Gets a Boost from Social Networks

By Tom Kincaid

There’s a certain catch-22 in social media: everyone wants to use the thing that everyone else is using. Critical mass is, well, critical. But getting to that critical mass from nothing is the tricky part. Such has been the fate of OpenID, the essence of which is the idea that people should share their login and information across multiple sites. But since nobody has really used it, nobody else has wanted to use it either.

This drowsy state of affairs in what has come to be called Data Portability has suddenly been woken up in a flurry of recent announcements. First MySpace announced an initiative called Data Availability along with Yahoo!, eBay, Photobucket, and Twitter. It allows partners to use MySpace users’ logins, profile info, photo, videos, and friends list on their own sites. The next day Facebook announced an almost identical service called Facebook Connect. Then Google announced a service called Friend Connect which includes Facebook, Hi5, Orkut, Plaxo, and other sites. It seems to be more of MyBlogLog-like widgets, while the MySpace and Facebook initiatives seem to be more robust APIs, but all are nothing but announcements at this point.

Taken together, they represent the next phase of social media APIs. The first phase was providing platforms for developers to integrate their applications within popular social networks. These new services turn this inside-out and allow other websites to incorporate user information from MySpace, Facebook, etc. There are only so many profiles the average person will maintain, so this has generally led to consolidation of a few large social networks. If people can easily use their logins, profiles, and friends lists across smaller niche sites, it will likely make it easier for these to grow.

While all the players in these announcements are part of an industry organization called The DataPortability Project, none of the platforms were actually developed within it. And while they use some open standards like oAuth, they will likely be incompatible and something of a platform war is inevitable. If social networks extend beyond individual sites, whoever maintains the crucial foundation of managing users’ social identities will reap huge rewards. The stakes are high and the first moves have been made. Let’s hope the result includes better, richer, and more varied social experiences for users.