(Written July 2007)
The digital dark ages is already a reality for a lot of people who grew up with hosted e-mail services like Compuserve and AOL. A lot of those users had no choice but to accept the loss of all their received and sent e-mail when they unsubscribed, the service went under, or their account was deleted from inactivity. Mark Pilgrim wrote about the challenge of long-term data preservation without open formats and source code:
Data readable by only one application is a big risk factor, because the application won’t be around forever. If that application only runs on one operating system, that’s even worse, because the operating system won’t be around forever either. If that operating system only runs on one hardware platform, that’s even worse still. No hardware lasts forever, and you may eventually need to resort to emulating the hardware in software. Emulation is the ultimate fallback. But if any or all of those layers are closed, emulation may be costly or even impossible. And if any of the layers are DRM-encumbered, emulating them may be illegal.
Most social network users don’t keep a copy of their data in any format, so how can we expect to preserve it? Will MySpace be around for 5 years? 20 years? People have already declared Friendster dead; all your testimonials and contacts of old friends could be gone any month now.
The next killer social networking application shouldn’t be another Friendster or MySpace, but rather an open standard allowing us to create and manage our own social data. And it is “our” data. Points of contact with old friends we’ve managed to track down, new friends made from shared interests, anecdotes and testimonials we’ve written for friends and loved ones, snapshots of our interests and personalities. Only by keeping this information in an open format, available for us to backup, can we expect for it to survive.
Let’s say that MySpace suddenly had an export feature. How much would it need to include to be meaningful in 50 years? Obviously you’d want your profile, pics, videos, and blog posts; your inbox and sent mail; probably comments you’ve made on friends’ profiles and blog posts. How much of your friends’ data would you want?
October 2009: We’re still not there. Google Wave will vastly improve the situation (at least having a permanent record for IM), but the real goal here is something trivially easy to install, letting users host their own personal and networking data. Big web providers could still carve out a business by caching copies of user data (to save bandwidth, or for backup) and concentrating on indexing, searching, and providing apps like those for Facebook.
When Opera released Unite (basically a webserver in the browser), I wasn’t sure what they’d get out of it, or what the use case was, but actually this the perfect platform on which to build a distributed social network app. The default storage location of all your data would be on your computer, easily backed up at any time.
Next best thing: SocialSafe, a Facebook backup tool. For three bucks you could be able to show your kids how their parents met, and what they were like then.