As users of the internet, we leverage a ton of “free” online services and products: Gmail, Flickr, Facebook, Twitter, Google Docs, the App Store, Marketplace, Tumblr, LinkedIn, and Pinterest, just to name a few.
But there’s a very blurry line with each of these — what do you own and what is owned by the tool you’re using?
Many services allow you to export your personal information or user data, but actually migrating that data to another online tool is a nightmare (users are left to opt for a 3rd party service and/or sift through thousands of online forum posts to figure it out themselves). Just try to move all of your photos over from Flickr to Picasa or vice versa without losing privacy settings, resolution, and hours/days of your time. It’s called lock-in, and it totally sucks.
But lock-in doesn’t stem entirely from corporate bullying. It’s also the result of an erroneous assumption that the burden of maintaining user content is ultimately the responsibility of the tools we use. It’s like going to a free public kitchen, making whatever mess we want, and then walking away without ever cleaning up or taking our food with us. It sounds too good to be true because it is: the food isn’t really ours and the kitchen has to find a way to pay for what we left behind (“let’s cover 90% of the kitchen in ads!” or “let’s wait until you’ve spent 2 weeks making a cake and then tell you it costs $1 to use our oven”). Not only does this suck for you, it sucks for them, too.
Let’s make things better.
The topic of ownership is nothing new for the net. From early heated debates about hotlinking (lovingly referred to as bandwidth theft) to the GNU GPL and Creative Commons, the internet at large has been looking for ways to balance our desire to put content anywhere while maintaining our notions of possession/attribution and legal rights.
Which brings us to today: we think the best solution is to take ownership of the data you create.
Storing your photos on Facebook and thinking that you still own them is naïve—the cost of keeping them online (as well as backed up multiple times) and being able to share them with thousands of friends at a moment’s notice is quite expensive. This drives the need for more ad revenue (pursued in whatever obtrusive ways Facebook chooses), and fewer opportunities to use/modify your content however you want. You might retain the rights to your photos, but you definitely don’t retain overall control (and why should you? how much did you pay Facebook for its services?). You—and your content!—are locked in to Facebook with no easy way out.
*sparkle, sparkle, sparkle*
Now imagine that your photos were instead stored online via an open storage service that you paid for (maybe just a few dollars a month, and we’re not talking about something provider-centric like iCloud or Google Drive). Your photos could still be shared on Facebook, but via an embedded link to your data (i.e., not stored on Facebook’s servers). You would retain full control over your content, and with less burden on the services you use. Fewer ads and the freedom to use any tool or sharing service you like. You could even enable comments from multiple communities of users in the same space.
But storing your photos on a data storage service is just the tip of the iceberg. You could also retain ownership over your personal lists of friends (and easily move between social media platforms without losing any of your connections), and over your thousands of comments, links, tags, and files. We could bring the internet closer together when a new service is introduced instead of breaking it apart (imagine Facebook and Google+ and Twitter and Diaspora, instead of making users choose one or create multiple accounts/friends for each service).
Not only does user-owned content free us all from lock-in, it also has the potential to open up better alternatives to the tools and services we use every day. Sit in on any forward-thinking tech discussion and you’ll see the burden of ownership pull the rug out from under an otherwise great idea. Instead of tools and services standing beside one another where the user has the choice of what to use, most online services are forced to either sit under a segmented community umbrella (like Facebook, Twitter, or Google+) or go it alone, starting from scratch with no user content at all. Encouraging alternatives and improvements should be the norm, not a rare exception that gets gobbled up by a single, overarching company.
Elevating user-owned content encourages advances on the storage side, too. You should be able to easily search all of your files, messages, links, tags, and friends, regardless of which services they’re on. You should be able to use version control on everything you own to go back in time and see what something looked like yesterday or last year. You should be able to customize permissions with groups, set global user preferences across services, and control rights policies for how your content can be used by others.
Needless to say, we’re experimenting with some new approaches to user-owned content right now. Our hope is to empower the distributed community of both service- and content-creators to become more interconnected. We believe the internet can evolve beyond the few large companies that convey an illusion of broad networks within their relatively tiny silos.
Feel free to let us know what you think. We’re ever-curious about ways to make the web more awesome.