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Flowing Your Identity Through the Social Web

December 2nd, 2010
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Some social networking platforms are beginning to buy into data portability. Whereas any step toward opening up the closed data-silo islands is a positive step, the real question is what does data portability actually mean?

Data portability is defined as the ability to “bring your identity, friends, conversations, files and histories with you, without having to manually add them to each new service.”

Does this really solve the most important issue that users face when spelunking the depths of the social networking space?

This is the fundamental defect with the notion of data portability on the closed Web. The duplication of a user’s data across multiple networks.

While it’s great that a user has the flexibility, the freedom, even the right to take their data with them, in effect they are not taking anything with them. Users are not actually porting anything from one site to another. Porting implies the moving of an entity from one location to another, the transferring of data from one machine to another.

In reality, data portability is about giving users the freedom and ability to grab a copy of their current dataset and paste it into yet another data silo. They are not actually moving their data as much as copying it from one silo to another. So, their data is now duplicated across multiple locations.

The data silo (the social network) from which the data was copied (“moved”), does not delete the content—often even after a user requests the deletion of their account. Why? Because a member’s data, the content, is one of the most important business assets the social network owns. It is their key competitive advantage.

This is the fundamental defect with the notion of data portability on the closed Web. The duplication of a user’s data across multiple networks makes it even harder for a given user to control their identity, privacy, and Web presence.

What most people call a Web identity is simply an identifier. The true representation of an individual on the Web is what I describe as the set of all their identity graphs.

I don’t want my personal data exported, copied, replicated throughout the Web. I am for data redundancy where it’s efficient and necessary, but exporting a copy of my dataset (or subset) from one social graph to another does not make sense. You are duplicating your effort. You are splitting up–or more accurately duplicating part of–your identity graph into little pieces and then strewing them into different locations, placing them in multiple, closed data silos.

Don’t get me wrong. I am for true data portability. I’m just not in favor of the way it is currently implemented by the few participating social networks.

What I am proposing is a step beyond data portability that is even more user centric, that could make the Internet a truly open space, that would help usher in the Social Web.

What is Identity on the Web?

Before introducing my concept, it’s important to understand a key difference between my views of Web identity and the mainstream definition.

The commonly-accepted definition of a Web identity is a digital representation of a user. It is one of many possible personae that an individual may have on the same social network or among all the networks in which a given person participates. But I believe this definition discounts the individual in the equation.

In my article, Thinking Outside the Privacy Box, I discuss my philosophical views about identity on the Web. In short, what most people call a Web identity is simply an identifier. The true representation of an individual on the Web is what I describe as the set of all their identity graphs.

Enter Identity Flowability

In our service-centric Web-2.0 world of social networks where each new service is in effect a closed data silo, data portability is an important issue. What I’m suggesting is that the next focus of the Social Web should be to obviate the need for data portability.

Instead of data portability, the Social Web needs to champion the concept of Identity Flowability. Identity Flowablility is the easy movement of and control over a given identity graph by a given user.

Identity Flowablility enables a user to store any part of their identity graph in the places that they choose and then allow other sites to reference that data from those places—not copy the data from those places. Data would be semantically marked up to facilitate their auto discoverability for sharing between other sites. Access rights could easily be assigned.

WebIDs could become the cornerstone in the user-centric Social Web.

Thus the concept of Identity Flowablility is to provide each user with an easier, more efficient, and effective mechanism with which to control their entire IdentitySpace. It creates a user-centric container through which data content and privacy rights could be better managed and controlled.

How would this concept change the Social Web? Instead of the quantity of users a site has being its most valuable, monetizable asset, the true value proposition of each Web 3.0-enabled company would be the quality and uniqueness of their service. No longer would a large membership base necessarily equal a big asset as smaller, more nimble niche-market players could compete by offering superior services.

WebID: Helping to Flow and Control Identity

There is a very promising identification protocol that goes a long way toward creating the foundation of a flowable identity. It’s called WebID—in particular, a FOAF+SSL WebID. If you are interested in identity flowability, I encouraged you to learn more about WebIDs and how they could become the cornerstone in the user-centric Social Web.

My Related Articles

  1. The Web is Not (yet) Social
  2. Thinking Outside the Privacy Box
  3. Web 3.0: Powering Startups to Become Smartups
  4. Repackaging the Promise of the Social Semantic Web
  5. Regaining Control of Privacy and Identity: It’s up to Each Individual
  6. A Flock of Twitters: Decentralized Semantic Microblogging

Also See

An interesting six-minute video presentation graphically discussing the issues with OpenID: OpenID: Identity Service or Identity Platform

For an interesting, possible alternative to today’s closed-siloed Web, visit the Consortium for Local Ownership and Use of Data. Their task is challenging but in tune with my sentiment expressed above.

blog, data silos, Entrepreneurship & Leadership, identity 2.0, privacy, Social Media & Semantic Web, SocialWeb, WebID

Flocking To the StreamJeff Sayre Webtrepreneur

February 18th, 2010
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I recently began to go through some article backlogs on the websites of various people whose thoughts and perspectives I want to understand better. One such person with whom I’m trying to play catch up is Nova Spivack. If you don’t follow Nova then I suggest taking the time to remedy that egregious error.

Since I’m basically working through Nova’s article archive in reverse chronological order, it may very well be that in the future, I’ll scribe thoughts on some of his even older ruminations. So, if that occurs, please pardon this information time dilation.

The Stream

I read Nova’s article, Welcome to the Stream – Next Phase of the Web, with great interest. With all the buzz about Google Buzz over the past eight days or so, this article made me think about the yet-another-stream phenomenon (YASP). *1

What is YASP? It is that somewhat exciting but ultimately frustrating realization that there is yet another social networking, microblogging, threaded-conversation service that you might have to join so that you don’t get left behind.

The idea of user streams is interesting. As I read Nova’s article, the imagery of a kayaker navigating down world-class rapids came to mind.

There is a qualitative difference in streams. Some streams may drizzle like a gentle shower, while others furiously flow like class-5 rapids.

Unfortunately, a higher flow rate does not necessarily equal higher quality. In my experience, there is a noticeable decrease in the signal versus noise ratio as the flow of each stream increases. This is why it is crucial to follow only those people with whom you are genuinely interested in hearing their thoughts. Simply following someone (or following them back) to build your follower numbers is a sure-fired way to increase the noise in your stream.

High Flow Is Not Always Healthy Flow

As users begin to tap into more streams, those streams usually start flowing faster. As Nova states, we need to create filters, or gates, that can discriminately select the signal from the noise, that can help to slow the flood of information.

Look at Twitter. As you follow more and more people, the rate of flow increases. In turn, you must work harder to fish the nutritious data from the swollen data stream. Eventually, the stream can become too treacherous to navigate. So, you either drop a number of people, thereby reducing the flow and hopefully increasing the signal to noise ratio, or you portage on over to another stream with more gently moving data.

This is exactly what some people did last year when they tried an experiment, switching from primarily using Twitter to only using FriendFeed. Of course, that stream quickly became a fast moving torrent as well. So, what’s next? Will these users jump ship once again, looking for the next, best, newest, and maybe calmer body of data to sail?

Well, we already have a new test underway with the introduction of Google Buzz. Many Twitterers have Gmail accounts and many of them activated their new Buzz stream. However, the early consensus from Buzz users is that Buzz is a Twitter-FriendFeed hybrid.

I tried using Buzz for several days but found that it was too much information being shared by too few people. It was a lot of noise and not enough signal.

Of course, my impression could also be the inevitable result of information overload. When you have too many concurrent streams to navigate–Twitter, Facebook, Skype, iChat, an IRC channel or two, email, and Buzz–it becomes a little too much to take in. So, what’s the answer?

Taking a Break From and Portaging Your Streams

The key to navigating successfully and safely in any fast moving, constantly changing environment is to get out of the flow every so often to rest and reassess the situation. Let the flow pass you by and take a break. The stream will continue to flow without you.

Even the best world-class paddlers have to get out of the rapids periodically and take a break. When they return to the stream, they concentrate only on what is ahead and never worry about what has already passed them by.

Sometimes, though, you have to take your kayak out of the water and portage to another stream. That’s an important lesson to us all. You cannot successfully navigate every stream at the same time. Pick a few streams to monitor at a time. Then portage on over to another stream or two for awhile, taking a break from the others.

What does this mean for Google Buzz’s future? What does this mean for other microblogging service providers that inevitably will come to the party, trying to get you to put another kayak into their stream?

Well, as the number of streams continue to increase and as the flow rate of each stream picks up, people will grow tired of having to subscribe to, having to join yet-another-stream phenomenon (YASP). Does the Web truly need additional stream providers each with their own data silos? Is there a user-centric solution to this rapidly growing, overflowing-stream issue that puts YASP to rest once and for all?

There is, which is the subject of my next post coming tomorrow this Friday—A Flock of Twitters: Decentralized Semantic Microblogging.


1. YASP: Yes, I just made this phrase and acronym up. Feel free to spread it around the Web, turning it into yet-another-disgusting buzzword (YADB).