DataPortability has big names on board, but a long road ahead

Plaxo, Google, and Facebook now have members in the relatively new consortium to promote social-networking interoperability. Don't expect to see immediate results any time soon, though.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
3 min read

There's been plenty of talk about data portability over the past few weeks, what with Facebook taking issue with a Plaxo script that imported user data from one social network to the other. But the news has mostly dealt with tiffing and squabbling--until now.

A group called the DataPortability Workgroup announced Tuesday that representatives from Facebook, Google, and Plaxo have signed on as members. The group, spearheaded by Chris Saad of start-up Faraday Media, is a sort of alliance of Web thinkers devoted to "(putting) all existing technologies and initiatives in context to create a reference design for end-to-end data portability."

Bloggers were ecstatic. ReadWriteWeb's Marshall Kirkpatrick said that "if these industry titans can put aside their rivalry and work together, magic could happen." And TechCrunch's Duncan Riley was giddy over the news, claiming that "this day will be remembered" and that "by joining...Facebook is embracing open standards and open access, and that is a huge fundamental change from its previous stance on being locked in to closed standards."

In other words, DataPortability hopes to bridge one social media site to another, using existing technologies like OpenID and RSS.

It's a good first step. But the road ahead isn't going to be a smooth one, and social-media enthusiasts hailing the age of "true interoperability" shouldn't hold their breath. This will take a while.

For one, some of the companies with representatives in DataPortability don't exactly have histories of agreeing with one another. Last week, the debate over data portability was ignited when popular blogger Robert Scoble (a DataPortability member) was banned from Facebook (represented in the DataPortability group by Benjamin Ling) for using the aforementioned script from Plaxo (represented by platform guru Joseph Smarr). "The goal with DataPortability is to sort of look at the Scoble incident as...a canary in the mine," Saad said in an interview with CNET News.com. "Users are going to want to do this more and more."

Social-networking interoperability has been hailed across the Web as a necessary next step in the evolving medium. The road map for Google's hyped OpenSocial initiative, which will use a common markup language to make applications and widgets compatible among participating social networks, does not yet include a plan for data sharing between different services.

Additionally, levels of official affiliation in DataPortability vary, meaning that a representative may enthusiastically agree upon a social-networking standard only to present it to a boss who balks at the idea. Facebook confirmed that it considers Ling to be its official liaison to the alliance and Smarr is Plaxo's. Google, represented in DataPortability by LiveJournal creator and OpenSocial guru Brad Fitzpatrick, was not available for comment. But Saad said many of the other members of DataPortability, who come from companies like Yahoo, Six Apart, and MySpace.com, are "more likely to be personally interested rather than company representatives."

And having a coalition of recognizable names won't necessarily mean that lofty goals will get accomplished any time soon, or at all. (Cases in point: the HD DVD alliance, or the United States Congress.)

Participants are understandably enthused. "I think it has been a grassroots movement that has grown over the last year," Plaxo's Smarr said in an interview with News.com. "I think people realize they were all kind of working toward the same vision, where users are in control and data can move seamlessly across applications."

Nevertheless, it's important to keep in mind that DataPortability, unlike Google's OpenSocial, is not an agreement to adopt a set of standards. It's a group of Web personalities, many of them rivals in one capacity or another, who show interest in developing some kind of standard. This looks like a legitimate effort on behalf of some great minds who really do want to make the social Web run more smoothly, but anything like this is going to take quite some time to overcome the roadblocks.