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Plaxo gives Facebook a litmus test

The new year in social networking is picking up where it left off with Plaxo letting loose a Facebook data importer (see Techmeme for the full debate). Robert Scoble was given an alpha version of Plaxo's Facebook contact data importer, and the Facebook engine shut him down.
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Written by Dan Farber, Inactive on

The new year in social networking is picking up where it left off with Plaxo letting loose a Facebook data importer (see Techmeme for the full debate). Robert Scoble was given an alpha version of Plaxo's Facebook contact data importer, and the Facebook engine shut him down. So far Facebook officials haven't said whether the Scoble shut down is policy (the contact data doesn't leave Facebook) or a system error that will be remedied.

In October 2007 at the Web 2.0 conference, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said regarding allowing users to export their Facebook data: “It’s a flaw in the system right now." So far he hasn't offered any time frame or remedy for fixing the “flaw.”

I talked to John McCrea, vice president of marketing at Plaxo, and Joseph Smarr, chief platform architect for Plaxo, about the Facebook importer. McCrea said that Plaxo wasn't doing anything different that any other Web email import, pointing out that Facebook imports contact information from Gmail. "For some reason Facebook has gone to inordinate lengths to prevent users from getting data out of Facebook. What's good for goose is apparently not good for gander," McCrea said.

He noted that Facebook makes it difficult to get email addresses out by displaying them as images rather than text. Plaxo resorted to OCR to scrape the email addresses for import.

"This is a real litmus test for Facebook," said Smarr. "Users want the functionality. Now we will see if Facebook puts its money where mouth is. We are only pulling in basic contact information. We did the same with LinkedIn and they liked it."

McCrea said Scoble was chosen as the guinea pig for the alpha software because his 5,000 "friends" would test whether the tool could handle such a load. "It's not playing out how thought it would, but a conversation will ensue. We are keenly interested to see how it plays out in court of public opinion."

Plaxo expects to release the Facebook data import tool later this month. "We are a bit alarmed at seeing users' accounts suffer. We will evaluate the situation day-by-day, but we are still committed to user ownership and control and the portability of data," McCrea added.

Plaxo's Pulse social network, which was launched in August 2007, just topped 1 million monthly users, up from 250,000 in November, McCrea said. Facebook is surpassing 60 million monthly members. Plaxo clearly benefits from a more open social Web, as do the users.

Nick Carr makes the argument that the Facebook data scraping isn't a totally benign act of a users claiming their some basic (name, email, birthdate, etc.) social graph data.

Now, if you happen to be one of those "friends," would you think of your name, email address, and birthday as being "Scoble's data" or as being "my data." If you're smart, you'll think of it as being "my data," and you'll be very nervous about the ability of someone to easily suck it out of Facebook's database and move it into another database without your knowledge or permission. After all, if someone has your name, email address, and birthday, they pretty much have your identity - not just your online identity, but your real-world identity.

That's a legitimate point, but no one was complaining about importing address book data. It's a question of how much data to expose and whether users have any say in whether their data can be imported by other users.

In the meantime, we are still waiting for Facebook to respond. If lessons have been learned, it will be much faster than it took to deal with the Beacon controversy.

Of note: Dare Obasanjo lays out what he perceives is the real issue around social network interoperability and data portability:

What I Want When It Comes to Social Network Interoperability

Having I’ve said what I don’t think is important to discuss when it comes to “social graph problems”, it would be rude not to provide an example fof what I think would be fruitful discussion. I wrote the problem I think we should be solving as an industry a while back in a post entitled A Proposal for Social Network Interoperability via OpenID which is excerpted below

I have a Facebook profile while my fiancée wife has a MySpace profile. Since I’m now an active user of Facebook, I’d like her to be able to be part of my activities on the site such as being able to view my photos, read my wall posts and leave wall posts of her own. I could ask her to create a Facebook account, but I already asked her to create a profile on Windows Live Spaces so we could be friends on that service and quite frankly I don’t think she’ll find it reasonable if I keep asking her to jump from social network to social network because I happen to try out a lot of these services as part of my day job. So how can this problem be solved in the general case?

This is a genuine user problem which the established players have little incentive to fix. The data portability folks want to make it easy for you to jump from service to service. I want to make it easy for users of one service to talk to people on another service. Can you imagine if email interoperability was achieved by making it easy for Gmail users to export their contacts to Yahoo! mail instead of it being that Gmail users can send email to Yahoo! Mail users and vice versa?

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