I have l a problem with social networking sites. Services like Facebook, Twitter, and so on all encourage me to trust them with all of the data regarding myself and my friends/associates. In return, they provide a service to me for “free”.
I don’t like letting *my* data out of my hands. Some of the most important pieces of information in my life are my emails, my email address books, my blog, and my online photos. If I upload that data to Facebook, GMail, or Flikr I enter into some sort of contract with that provider. The “free” service they offer me is actually paid for by the data I upload: read the fine print in your usage agreement, and you’ll see that they claim more rights to your data than you think they do. I’ve often been told I’m not “with it” or “cool” for choosing to distance myself from these services, and I can’t really argue that- I’ve never been one of the “cool kids”. But to me, the data Facebook, GMail and others want me to give them access to in order to use their services is just too precious to me to mess around with. That’s why I pay for email services, run my own blog, and store my network based photo album on my own servers. Free sounds really good until you realize you are trading your data for that low cost.
Earlier this week, Robert Scoble encountered the “dark” side of the social networking phenomena. Robert was running a script to extract his list of “friends” from Facebook so he could use that information for his own purposes. One might think that this would be quite acceptable: the data belongs to Robert, right? Wrong. It belongs to Facebook. They choose how and if he can access his own data because, quite frankly, it isn’t his any more. It now belongs to them. His friends and acquaintances are a commodity they sell, and as such the data is a valuable resource that they don’t want to make easily accessible to competitors. To be honest, the data you hand over to Facebook and GMail is the only thing they have to sell/leverage to make money, and believe me that these companies are not running their service out of the goodness of their heart. Monetizing your personal data is Job #1 for these social networking services, and we are only beginning to see how this will be accomplished.
Facebook has reinstated Scoble’s account, but that doesn’t change the reality: the data is *theirs*. If you think the emails you send via Google Mail, or the friends you invite via Facebook or MySpace are “yours”… you are fooling only yourself. I don’t think this kind of occurrence will actually change the way people use these services, but I do feel increasingly concerned regarding where this is leading. Will everything I do, say, or store online via a social networking site eventually be used to sell things to me and everyone I know? That certainly seems to be the dream of many of these services. I’m not completely comfortable with data I think of as “personal” and valuable becoming fodder for a massive marketing effort to all my friends and acquaintances.
But then I’m not one of the “cool” kids 🙂