Your life in Their hands

The world of electronic communication has changed immensely in recent years, and one aspect that has subtly crept up on us is the move from tools we own to tools we don’t. I’m not talking about cloud services, particularly, I’m referring to the shift from open systems to closed systems. Should you be worried? Read on.

Consider this: your email is sent through a server which you either own or which you have chosen at a Service Provider. You can move your email archive to another server if you need to. If you’ve set up your own domain – cheap and easy to do – you can even select your own email address and move it around between providers. You truly own your email. The telephone is similar: you can (at least in the UK) move between providers – especially mobile – and usually keep your phone number as you do so, unless it’s tied geographically. You can easily own your own voicemail, and anyway it’s rare to store voicemail for any length of time. You truly own your telephony.

But social networking is a different kettle of fish.

There is no standard for social networking. A social networking “message” format is not documented by ISO, ITU or the IETF. You cannot send social networking “messages” between different systems. You cannot, generally, move your social network “stuff” from one provider to another. In short, it’s all proprietary.

Now, normally I don’t have an issue with systems being proprietary. But when you start to entwine social networking tools into your everyday life you really want to be able to choose to use the system that’s most appropriate to you. You want to micro-blog on a system where people you know might be able to follow your messages, organise nights out on a system where your friends will be able to participate, share your photos on a system where your friends and family can easily view them.

And that isn’t how life is today.

As we see the folks at Twitter start to grapple with the concept of making money, and the folks at Facebook grapple with expansion into adjacent technologies such as voice and video, the picture becomes clear: we’re increasingly putting our personal lives into the hands of people who run closed systems and who will increasingly want to make money from us in one way or another. Not everyone can be a Google – not every service provider can run their business largely on advertising revenue. The crunch will come sooner or later.

So what am I saying? Well, two things.

Firstly, that identity on the net – which used to be encompassed in an email address – is now uncontrolled such that we all have multiple identities on multiple systems. It’s not always clear whether mikbarne on LinkedIn is the same person as mikbarne on Twitter (he is: it’s me. Hi). And when the next new thing comes along, maybe mikbarne will be my oldest enemy (so old, I can’t recall who it might be). There’s no control over identity at all. I’ll come back to this topic in a future post.

Secondly, that these things are now important enough that they need some attention from the powers that be. Whether self-regulating or overseen by some global body, we need something to drive the disparate systems towards each other. And I don’t mean by market consolidation into two or three massive service providers (or, perhaps, just Google?!). It’s cool that I can log into some websites by logging into Facebook, but it’s also rather weird. I actually want to log into any website (where I’m registered) by presenting my globally unique credentials. I want to be able to share information between disparate systems. I want to be able to move my data from one system to another – where it makes sense to do so. That requires standards, de facto or otherwise.

And I have a final message. If you’re sourcing a service, even as a solitary consumer, now is the time to start asking for these things. We’re still seeing rapid developments in provision of blogging, micro-blogging, social networking, directory and other services. Those providers want our business. But at some point, and it may be soon, market forces will bite and we may start to regret allowing the market to decide how and where our lives will reside.


About mikbarne
I'm a writer and freelance communications and collaboration consultant with nearly 20 years experience in UK telecommunications, specialising in VoIP, Unified Communications and Collaboration, and building effective communications architectures. Visit my Google+ Profile

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