Sunday, May 03, 2009

My Data, Your Disks, Our Problem

Image representing LiveJournal as depicted in ...Image via CrunchBase

LiveJournal [LJ] is a hosted blogging network with lots of community facilities. The user identity you create for your own blog is good to comment with on other LiveJournals, and to easily create communal blogs with multiple moderators with, and it is used for access controls so LiveJournal blog owners can easily set who can read which entries with a very rich filtering system. It's a social world of its own, and the users like it. What they did not like, however, was how the corporation and the servers on which LiveJournal lives, got managed.

LJ decided that to make money, they would put ads on the free journals. Ads started appearing for causes that the blog writer could be diametrically opposed to, without any way for the blog writer to exert control. The current example is banner ads for groups opposing same-sex marriage on journals with same-sex content. Other problem: as I described here earlier, one day LJ deleted tons of journals for poorly though-out reasons. Then there was how LJ changed owners and now is in the hands of a Russian company (LJ is huge in Russia, almost synonymous with blogging, including political blogging) which could mean the intellectual property and privacy policies changed jurisdictions -- we are not sure. The community realized that all these filters and locks on their content are really only one patch of code away from being gone and all their secrets and gossip ending up being public, for whatever political reason some owner decide to put in that patch.

The community didn't like any of this one bit, and some people finally got up and did something: they took the code and created DreamWidth [DW]. It is a fork of the LJ codebase, under the control of a group of people who will do things Differently, have Community Outreach from day one, Nurture the Content, Understand Blogging, will not allow that kind of icky commerce, etc, etc. Basically it is a reboot of LJ to go back to the founder's attitudes. Except it didn't fix the fundamental problem of social sites on the Internet: some company that is not you is managing your content by their rules -- not yours.

It's the same for Flickr, Facebook, MySpace. Community members upload, those sites manage it. These companies make space available, code the site to make sharing worthwhile, make the back-ups, and they are in it to make money. Which means they are under pressure: a site with tens of thousands to millions of users making content like rabid bunnies requires large amounts of money to keep running reliably, always. DreamWidth will end up under the same pressures that made the various owners of LJ decide to sell it. Or need ads. Or sell it again. Or delete journals. And there is really very little a content-contributor can do about it.

Once those bits you write, tweet, shoot, and upload, are on that hard disk, they are no longer under your own control. You rely on the Terms of Service, but most of them are written to cover the corporation's ass, not to share equitably with you. Same with the Privacy Policy: if there is a single provision in any of them for compensating you for the damage that will occur if your private data gets out there, I have yet to see it. The Internet never forgets, and you barely get to move on. The social sites do indeed need the content creators, but that actually doesn't mean the site owners are stopped from making bad decisions. It's just that they will eventually get penalized by attrition if they make too many bad decisions, but until that that migration away reaches critical mass, those bad decisions can seriously hurt the content creators that had invested in the site with their content.

DreamWidth did do something very smart: they made migration of content from LJ to their servers very easy. They have tools so DW owners can run their LJ journal along side their DW journal with automatic cross-posting and filtering. And an LJ identity works well on DW to make comments with. It all helps to ease the process of switching to DW by mitigating the penalty of leaving all your friends behind, and also helping them come with you. Usually social sites making bad decisions rely on the inertia of losing your social network on the site to keep you, even if you are moaning and grumbling. DW is almost poaching dissatisfied LJ users.

But still, DW's disk is not my disk. LJ users, like me, will just be switching to some great new features, but another group of people they do not know to host their content, although these ones have a better manifesto than the current ones of LJ. It will be the same when I decide Flickr is still moderating badly. Or Twitter starts adding ad lines to my Tweets. Every site I invest content in could turn out to be run by closet dickheads who one day decide to come out of the closet, usually slow step by slow step.

I wish DW had harnessed the power of OpenID to create a federated social blog network. Sure, with a central hub to host blogs for people who do not want to be bothered, but also with a system to allow people to host their own blogs on their own disks, while the identity management still allows for the filtering and privacy groups and group journals that LJ allows. WordPress comes close with their model of blog hosting at their central hub at, and allowing personal installations by downloading from, but they just aren't getting the social part right: the creation of friend-groups, the filtering, the levels of privacy for posts. WordPress journals are all still very separate from each other, and the privacy system is not very fine-grained nor easy.

I wish there was as rich a photo-site with commenting and syndication capabilities as Flickr, that was also federated this way so my pics are mine and can't be made to disappear one day. That all social content was. Sure, you have to have software to mold the experience so that a coherent and predictable social network of identities and content and capabilities is created from all these bits of content on various disks, but the bits surely need not be all hosted by the one same corporation? Hyperlinks post to various hard disks across the web just fine, really, honest!

Yes, managing my own content still means that I have to sign up with a hoster, and sign their ToS, and possibly manage my own back-ups, and possibly have less reliable service, and probably will pay more. So if I do not want that, I'll sign up for the central hub account instead of hosting my own. But hosting my own is getting easier and cheaper by the month, and is still less exposure to corporate idiocy. I don't like the current threat of waking up one day and finding my content has been deleted with no warning by some corporate weenie, or worse, some automated system, because of an accusatory email from god knows what pissed-off person out there.

There's an upside for the corporation managing and creating this federate LJ, Facebook, MySpace, Flickr, or whatever new model, as well: surely the privacy policy and terms of service and use becomes much simpler for any corporation if they actually are not responsible for your actual data? They are only responsible for the overlay of how other people interact with it. Then again, seeing what kinds of YOU ARE LEAVING OUR NETWORK THAR BE DRAGNOS ARE YOU REALLY SURE OMG BBQ!!!1!!! disclaimers get put up by Facebook and other sites when a user is about to click a link that would take them to outside content, maybe not having this kind of control is the worst nightmare possible to the legal departments of modern Internet companies.

Uploading your data to the 'cloud' (i.e. places on the Internet) is supposed to make life easier and data less prone to disappearing when your hard disk at home or work crashes. But when it comes to social content, the cloud is turning out to be one silo of a corporation after another, vying for popularity to be the biggest one in their sector, and then once they are, doing more and more onerous things to pay the bills as they hope you stay put. Which at some point fails and then we all go to the next one. I think it would be nice if we could make our content more diffuse, like clouds actually are, keep all our own stuff in our own places, while still being able to participate in the greater social interactions, and end this cycle.