Here’s an old idea the digital age kindly renews every so often: Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket.
If you’ve ever done any sort of work with complex systems, you’ve heard the phrase “single point of failure.” It’s a term for what you’re supposed to avoid: A component that, when it fails, brings the whole system crashing down. Think of a Rube Goldberg
contraption after the birdie’s flown off and escaped.
And then there’s the related concept of vendor lock-in
. We’re all buying music and movies online these days, but I’ve avoided anything bogged down with copy protection or other restrictions. It’s not that I want to share my (totally hypothetical) Lady Gaga
collection with 5,000 of my closest friends — it’s that I don’t want to depend on the kind graces of Apple, Microsoft or anyone else to ensure I can still play it 10 years from now.
If I buy music that only plays on an iPod, and Apple gets out of the music business, I’m screwed. If I buy music that only plays on an iPod, and Dell builds the next great music player, I’m screwed. My solution: Don’t buy music that only plays on an iPod.
And while in some way the consumer market is moving away from lock-in (most big music vendors, including Apple, now sell copy protection-free music; e-books and movies are still generally locked down), we consumers, creators and even businesses remain all too willing to tie our futures and fortunes to organizations that have their own agendas — agendas that may easily come into direct conflict with our own.
Media Hookup is hosted on a service called Ning
. It’s a quick, convenient way to set up a social network, even with little technical know-how and few resources. But Ning’s just radically changed its product offerings
and pricing structure; it’s also significantly downsized its own staff. For many running Ning networks, that means it’s time to look elsewhere; for those who can’t easily migrate to other platforms, it may mean it’s time to shut down. Some are inconvenienced. Many feel betrayed.
In the short term, Media Hookup is fine — the changes made by Ning don't really cut to MH's core. In the long term, MH may move to another platform I can more completely control (so long as I can make the change in a way that’s pretty painless for the MH community). And even if MH were to disappear tomorrow (it won’t), it wouldn’t be the end of the world. I started this site as a hobby, not a business venture, and we’ve got a small user base that would cope well enough.
But when we collectively start treating platforms beyond our control as infrastructure — forgetting that they could disappear or morph into something unrecognizable at any time — we’re doing so at our peril.
Look at all the hubbub about Facebook these last few weeks. Facebook’s been slowly extending its reach over the Internet for the last few years. It’s pushed with great success a system that lets you sign into other sites with your Facebook login
. Now it’s more actively sharing your data with other sites
— all in the name of creating a more social, personal, interactive user experience across the Web, while setting up Facebook as the lax gatekeeper (sometimes more like a dimwitted doorman
) of all that makes your digital self you.
That’s frightening enough from a company that’s neither shown much interest in
nor competence at protecting
privacy. But we shouldn't be surprised. Facebook isn’t here to make the world a better place. It’s here to make the folks at Facebook money. As individuals, when we hand over valuable data to organizations with their own interests, we shouldn't be surprised if they happen to notice that the data is valuable.
What’s truly scary is that we so often let ourselves become dependent on such organizations. In the case of Facebook, we trust it to safeguard our information — when it might well violate that trust. We ask it to maintain connections it might sever — you never know when a company might decide you’re in violation of its terms of service
, or when it might lose your account information in a datacenter catastrophe
. We let it become a defacto standard for managing identity across the Web — when it could close up shop tomorrow and catastrophically break functionality all across the Internet, stranding us without access to our own content and data.The world moved on from Myspace
when it was one-upped by better and more user-friendly sites like Facebook, and when it lost credibility to trendier services like Twitter. Moving on from Facebook won’t be nearly as easy.
It’s not that Facebook necessarily will let us down; it’s that we can’t know for sure it won’t. The same applies anywhere else. What happens if YouTube starts charging
for access to your videos, or introducing your toddler’s birthday footage with condom advertisements? What happens to the novel you’ve been publishing bit-by-bit on Blogger if owner Google becomes the target of an antitrust probe
and gets split up? Is the content that defines your online identity safe?
If you're depending on others to keep it that way, the answer is simple: No.Louis C. Hochman is on Facebook, Twitter, and lots of other services. He doesn't sleep very well at night.