Bill of Rights
The Plaxo office in Mountain View is large, open, and half-empty, with, says Smarr, plenty of room for the company to grow. Rows of workstations at long tables have no barriers between them. At one workstation, a neon “open” sign lights up in red and blue. It looks, in other words, like a typical social-networking startup.
Indeed, since its founding seven years ago, Plaxo has in many ways mirrored the evolution of social networks as a whole–and their answers to the challenges they’ve faced. (In May, Comcast agreed to acquire the company.) Initially, Plaxo let new users import contact information from their existing e-mail accounts. It then gave them the option of automatically e-mailing their contacts to ask for updates. Many people, however, perceived the e‑mails as spam–a charge also leveled against the “viral marketing” techniques of other social networks. Two years ago the company abandoned the tool and publicly apologized for it. Plaxo then began trying to reinvent itself as a company that helps people manage their social data, which has become increasingly scattered among a variety of desktop applications and Web services.
Last summer, Plaxo launched Pulse, a site that allows users to track friends’ and family members’ online social activities. On a single page, for example, you can read and comment on a friend’s Twitter updates and blog entries or look at photos posted to Flickr. Given Plaxo’s commitment to Pulse, it is not surprising that Smarr has become a strong advocate of open communication between social sites. Posted in the Plaxo office is a hard copy of “A Bill of Rights for Users of the Social Web,” which Smarr coauthored last fall. The bill of rights reads, in part,
“We publicly assert that all users of the social web are entitled to certain fundamental rights, specifically:
Ownership of their own personal information, including:
-their own profile data
-the list of people they are connected to
-the activity stream of content they create;
Control of whether and how such personal information is shared with others; and
Freedom to grant persistent access to their personal information to trusted external sites.”
To facilitate the sharing of data across sites, community groups have developed a series of technical standards. OpenID lets users sign up once for a username and password that will then work at any compatible site. OAuth lets Web services share information about a user’s social contacts, without granting the services broader access to each other. RSS and XMPP can both automatically update a site about activity somewhere else, making it possible to track someone’s postings from a central location.
A number of companies have begun using such tools to make their data more open. Yahoo recently changed its user accounts so that they adhere to the OpenID format. Its customers can now use their Yahoo credentials to log in to sites that accept OpenIDs. Twitter is working to make its service compatible with OAuth. MySpace allows users to share their MySpace data with sites such as eBay and Photobucket. But at least one major social-networking site is bucking the trend.