Gain and Loss of Social Self

Who owns you? This is part of the battle brewing over social networks, and networking applications like Facebook. Robert Scoble, the Scobelizer, complains that when he tried to run a “script” on his profile on Facebook, Facebook detected it and kicked him off. He’s appealing the decision. He won’t say what the script is -- says he’s under a non-disclosure agreement with the company that wrote the bit of code that will somehow do something to Scoble’s Facebook profile -- but it seems to be something that would somehow take the info on Facebook, and run some other application on it.

A clue comes from a comment Scoble writes in response to someone who says that in a “walled garden,” the point is that it is walled. “We fundementally (sic) DON’T want someone wholeheartedly using our graphs. Especially not a friend, who we trust to not do that,” writes the commenter. Scoble replies: “What about info you’ve made public? Like, your name? And other stuff that’s on your public profile on Facebook? Are you saying that no one has the right to use that? How about this? Can I write down your email address and put it in my address book? Or, how about your birthday?

“So, why am I allowed to write down your phone number or email address, but my computer can’t take it out of Facebook and put it into Outlook for me? Or another program or service I’m using?

“How about something that actually ads value, like something that’d see that you’re on both Facebook and Twitter and Flickr and could mash those three together?”

So, Scoble is implying that what he wants to do is use publicly available information for private uses that he’d have permission to regardless of technology. This, I would guess, would be legal -- putting aside the Terms of Service issue -- in the same way that making copies of material for purely personal use are also legal.

He also alludes to a holy grail of social networking I think we’ll see more of this year: the social network mashup, applications that allow use of networking and profiles across platforms. Google’s Open Social is a step in this direction, though one that’s more push out than inbound in the way Scoble describes. Media companies and publishers are signing on with Google’s scheme so they can, say, write a widget once and have it spread across myriad platforms, rather than having to write or tweak new code for each. (And then they’re still having to write for Facebook, if they want to reach its millions of users. MySpace is a whole ‘nother issue.) I would expect to see a bunch of such apps come out this year, many with funding, and a few to catch on.

We’ll see, too, continued battle over closed vs. open that’s been part of the conversation since the earliest days of AOL and Prodigy vs. Netscape and Mozilla (and Internet Explorer, which provides the enticement of openness AND the control of digital rights management).

In a way, Scoble is arguing both sides of the coin. He owns the right to scrape his own profile, his own information -- though in joining Facebook, he signed terms of service that said he couldn’t run such applications on the closed network. Facebook, too, is trying to have it both ways. When they were exclusive to the academic community, they had a closed system that, while potentially very large, was limited to people with some similarity in mindset and orientation, at least in the broadest sense, and, probably, less likely to use the system for certain kinds of commercial behavior. By now allowing anyone from any background to register and use Facebook, and open up the API to all developers, the company is trying to reap the benefits of openness, but still with a closed system.

Facebook now has many millions of users. But how long will those millions remain when they are a) hit with an increasing number of unwanted marketing messages, un-needed invitations from non-”friends,” ever more mass messages, fewer directly relevant personal messages, b) finding it increasing difficulty to manage it all, and c) Open Social is on the way? We’ll see shakeouts this year among social networking applications, and an increasing number of profiles lay fallow. Facebook won’t die, and they’re smart enough that they may come up with a graceful solution that leads to more openness and integration with other platforms. The apology they gave due to the controversy that broke out over their Beacon system proves they are a company that’s able to hear complaints and try to adjust. But they will having a tough time overcoming the tension between walled garden and open access.

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