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h-is-for-harvest

I deleted my Facebook profile a few weeks ago because they unilaterally altered the terms of our agreement for the sixth time in five years. They did so in a way that explicitly benefited them over me. The original agreement went something like this (paraphrased):

Facebook: I’ll give you a private place to build something of value to you and your peers online. In exchange I’m going to show you ads.

Me: OK.

But then the agreement changed, and changed, and kept changing until I left.

I’m pretty tech-savvy and was never under any illusions about my sharecropper status at Facebook. I left when the arrangement became undesirable and in doing so, left any value I’d created with them. That’s all you can do when you don’t own the information. Right now, Facebook is the largest land owner online and 400 million+ people are sharecropping. We’re farming their land, they get a cut and it’s their way or the highway.

Social Media Sharecropping

Facebook gives us space and tools. We then create value by populating the space with user generated content. In exchange they get to extract value from the content we provide, but it’s totally different from the social value we extract. Their value is in the form of advertising and/or data mining (for other advertisers) but it’s a shared value proposition either way. This is basically the whole crux of the Web 2.0 movement. Users are adding value to the web and the owners benefit directly or indirectly which makes everything “free.” (I’m painting in broad strokes to make a point, bear with me…)

The caveat, and what makes the sharecropping allegory really stick, is that when we spend time adding value to their site and they unilaterally change the terms of the agreement there’s nothing we can do because they own the land, we just work here. It’s not easy for us to take our built up value (aka information) with us, if we can do it at all. There’s little to no data portability.

I’m singling out Facebook because they’re the elephant in the room, but there are tons of sites online where you can sharecrop or do something similar: MySpace, Flickr, Digg, YouTube, Twitter, Foursquare, Metafilter, Deviant Art, Etsy and on and on. It’s worth noting that many of these communities are more like co-ops or some other mutually-beneficial relationship with many degrees of data ownership and portability in between.

The Haves and Have-Nots

Digesting this concept can be tough, so I’m speaking in metaphors. If someone doesn’t know the difference between a web browser and a search engine, how are they to make the distinction of whether or not the value they’ve been curating and creating belongs to them? Maybe the better question is, does it even matter? The answer is the same as the answer to most questions; it depends.

I’m a bad candidate for sharecropping. Some are not.

Real sharecroppers are generally too poor to afford land; they’re a step above indentured servants. However, the hard cost of creating a web property these days is nominal. With free software, commodity hosting and a registered domain name; you can be up and running for the cost of a large pizza. This shifts the monetary wealth in our sharecropping metaphor from haves and have-nots, to knows and know-nots.

I am not poor at all in this new know and know-not sense. I know how to build websites, I do it all the time. Which is what leads me to the point I was at two weeks ago: staring at Facebook’s account deletion page.

I was done creating value for them. In most of my tenure as a Facebook user it was just a glorified address book to me, so I’m sure I was a low value user anyway. The point is I have other options. I can create content on the web on my own terms. I have several web properties that I unconditionally own and create value around. But wither the forced sharecropper?

Building Portable Value

The majority of people I interact with on a day to day basisĀ  can’t build their own website; my best friend can’t, my wife can’t. True land ownership online is not an option for them. So if they want to create something online they’re left to sharecropping.

As I said before, the options are many. However, In my opinion the desirable options are few. Here are two of my favorites that I often find myself recommending to others.

Posterous Export Options

Posterous – This is probably the best recommendation because it hooks into just about everything (see above) and does so with little or no technical knowledge from the user. In fact, it could be argued that Posterous’ best use is as a hub for exporting data to other sharecropping arrangements or “walled gardens”, but the key is that it does export well with no advanced technical knowledge. They also have a nice display interface themselves with lots of options.

Wordpress.com

WordPress.com – It has one-touch data export and once the data is out you can manipulate on your own terms. You do have to be technically inclined to do so, but it’s a nice feature for users who start out as sharecroppers and then build their informational wealth to a point that they’re ready to own some land. (I’m biased though, I cut my web development teeth on the open-source version of WordPress.)

There are other good options, I’m sure, but the important thing is that both of these services cater to the non-tech savvy without using it against them for data lock-in.

The Future

Some may argue this is all moot point because if a person is tech-illiterate enough they won’t care or understand why data lock-in is bad, but if they’re too tech-savvy they may just go off and build their own thing. I respectfully disagree…

It may because of articles like this, or it may be because people are just pissed they can’t get their photos out of Facebook, but there is a small middle ground that is growing; and I think it will continue to grow into the majority. They understand the importance of data portability and the concepts of an open web for one reason or the other, and they demand services that offer value in this form.

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