Data portability - Web 2.0 companies just don't get it
I'm tooling around with a Wiki site in my spare time, and I'm trying to find the best Wiki solution out there. I am currently using Twiki, and I really like it. The problem is I have to host it and maintain it, and although it's very powerful, it's not that approachable to newbies (although it probably could be with a lot of tweaking on my part).
But then I sent an email with the standard question: do I have the freedom to leave?
Specifically, I sent the following email:
I really like WetPaint. I have one major concern, however. It is important to me that wherever I place my content, I have the "freedom to leave." This means it is easy for me to export my content. I am concerned about content stored in some proprietary, closed format, which can "disappear" if the company disappears, or which I can't take with me if the company is acquired or changes business models and I no longer want to work with you. What policies and technologies do you have in place that give me the freedom to leave?
I don't want to pick on Wetpaint, they provide an excellent service, and this is a problem that is very very common among Web 2.0 companies. But here was their response. This is the kind of "they just don't get it" that I see a lot of:
Thanks for contacting Wetpaint. Wetpaint does not have a specific feature built in that is used for importing or exporting at this time, but content on Wetpaint sites is easily copied and pasted to a new location at anytime. Wetpaint sites are designed to be used as a collaborative tool which is constantly evolving and changing. This aspect of the technology doesnâ€™t really mesh with the traditional idea of importing/exporting as is used with more static types of content.
Cut and paste? That's how I get my content out? Well, sighing because I really like Wetpaint, I responded:
If I have a Wetpaint Wiki site with say 500 pages, I don't think cut-and-paste is going to "cut" it.
Just because a site is highly interactive and collaborative doesn't mean that potentially some day the community may decide they want to migrate to a different solution. Currently Wetpaint "locks you in" by not having an export function. Until it does I'm sorry to say I am not willing to put my content into it, because it's my content, and I want to be able to get it back out.
Just as an example of the problems you can get into by placing trust for your content under a certain provider, take a look at
this blog on Technorati about the experience of a long-time JotSpot customer when JotSpot was acquired by Google (scary that this blog was deleted). I don't know about whether this particular comment is "viable" or not, but the point is, this could happen to you. The jilted JotSpot customer says "Relying on web hosted application services is much more dangerous than I ever would have assumed." That says it in a nutshell!
This is a real problem, one that Tim O'Reilly also talks about quite a bit - he calls it the need for "open data." I am not sure how to make this happen, but we need standard data formats and import/export support for all the various content types that are getting published out there. There is some hope - the blogging world is starting to recognize this need. I know that Dave Johnson of Roller is aware of this issue and is working on it (he mentions this in this podcast - I know, I was there.
As another good sign of slowly raising awareness, when I searched for Simon Phipp's blog on the freedom to leave, I ran into
this announcement by BlogBridge, saying they are committed to supporting bug-free OPML export and import for blog subscriptions. Good for them!
If I were a business, I would be very very cautious about placing my business content in any of these Web 2.0 sites that don't give me freedom to leave. Look carefully, see what service agreement is there for "export control," and don't accept hand-wavy answers like "use cut and paste". These companies need to understand and honor that this is our content and should be treated with respect, care, and openness.
P.S. java.net: how do I export my blog content, anyway? Gads...