Around the same time that ADN launched, another service started off – tent.io. While ADN’s objective was to provide a scalable API that could and would do anything its developers asked for, tent.io began with the earnest aim of letting users own their own data. ADN is like any other online service in that the company runs its own servers, users push data – updates, photos or links to these servers and the servers push the data to other users. This single point of access means that all the data is stored on ADN infrastructure and this will not change. The big difference is that ADN doesn’t assert control over your data and you can export all those posts anything before you leave the service, if you do.
But there lies the problem. Facebook allows you to export your data, so does Google. Twitter, no longer interested in letting people export their data, is still figuring it out. The problem is, once you export the data, what do you do with it? Like a dog chasing its tail, exporting your data sounds excellent, specially to save you data from misuse by the respective companies, but once you download it, you’ve got nothing to do with it. There are no easy tools that allow me to transfer all my twitter posts to ADN or my 5 GB of GMail emails to an email account elsewhere. Even when these services exist, there’s barely any scope of the old data to exist in the new environment because each service tries to be different from the previous. For example, the testimonials people wrote for me on Orkut still sit there on that now defunct service. There is no ‘testimonial’ section on Facebook where I can place that data. So once you’ve exported all your precious data from a social network you’re leaving, that data will sit in a zip file on your hard drive until an eternity.
That’s where systems like tent.io and WordPress come in. My blogging has gone through many iterations – from a modest wordpress.com blog to hosting on free web hosting like HelioHost and ServersFree when I discovered that I wanted more freedom with my blog’s theme and plugins. Finally opting for paid hosting on NearlyFreeSpeech when I discovered that my blog was often overstepping the limits set on free accounts, I’ve traveled far and wide on the Internet (one of my web hosts was based out of Eastern Europe). The only glue that help my blog together was the fact that I had total control over WordPress files, the database and backups. I even faltered and forgot to take backups until I discovered that automated backups to Dropbox were the best thing since sliced bread. One day, after discovering that one of the free hosts had shut me down overnight, the only way for me to get my blog back online was with the backups in my Dropbox. I did not lose a single file. Now, most of us don’t value our interactions on our social networks as much as we value our blogs. We think that it’s all pretty fleeting, just our thoughts at a particular moment or the lunch we had three days ago. But the value of that data grows with each tweet posted or each photo uploaded. We’re building our bases on ground that’s shaky. Consider two experiments I did –
1. I’ve been using a lot of bookmarking services over the past few years – I used to keep it simple and save all bookmarks on my computer. Until my computer crashed. I recovered everything, except the Application Support folder in Windows, loosing everything. Then I shifted to using Del.icio.us and was pretty happy with this tool my brother had introduced me to. But I fell out of habit out of that because it was not good enough to show me what I was bookmarking. For a while, I shifted completely to Pocket, then known as ReadItLater but then Instapaper pulled it away. Thus, all my bookmarks are spread all over the Internet and any one of these services threaten to die out some day, with me loosing all my data. My current solution is thus, as follows – I save reading material on Instapaper, all other multimedia on Pocket and everything, including a super set of the above, to my Google Chrome, which I have synced across multiple devices, thus giving me complete access to my entire history, bookmarks and logins. I trust Marco Arment to give us fair warning in case he feels like moving on from Instapaper some day and Google Chrome is too big to be shut down by Google any time soon, besides, I’m on Mac now and Time Machine backups are better at getting me my data back, unlike Windows.
2. Soon after I joined ADN and tent.io came up, Automattic, the company behind WordPress came out with their liveblog plugin. Traditionally, the plugin is supposed to be used for chronicling an event. But I decided that my life, live, is a good enough thing to chronicle. Thus, I decided to start live.nitinkhanna and now, I post all original thought on both ADN and live.nitinkhanna. The benefit? I own that information in a format that is transcendent beyond the current social networks I use and the backups they create. Now I don’t need to worry about exporting from ADN then writing code to extract all my posts and posting them on live.nitinkhanna, because my ideas, notes and posts are right here with me. Recently, when I was looking for a link that I had found particularly interesting, I did not go about searching my history or a search service for ADN, I knew it was somewhere on that one page that loads up on live.nitinkhanna and I found it in about 15 seconds. This gave me a unique perspective over where my data should be and in what format.
Now, coming back to the sensationalist headline I used for this post. I do not hope that tent.io will die. In fact, the opposite. The success of a service like tent teaches us that data should be readily available to us in a format that’s of our choosing and no one can take it away from us. Tent will be successful despite failures like Diaspora because tent is not assuming that it’ll change the landscape and must be funded heavily by VCs. Tent is opting to be open source and available. Its opting to be on Github so that millions can download the software and run it for themselves. Only, millions won’t. The primary implementation of tent is the tentd ruby software package. It’s not something that someone would pick up and install on a server right away. I can look up the WordPress famous 5 minute install and actually set it up on a free hosting service like ServersFree within that time frame. Tentd is still in its infancy, but it needs to move in that direction.
Not many people know that you can, in fact, install ruby based apps online for free on various services such as AppFog. I setup a data and processing intensive app called Fever on AppFog for free recently and wrote about how to do it. Next, I’m going to set up tentd there, so that I can learn and teach you all how it’s easy and free. But not many people will do that. Not enough people will opt to go for a complex ruby based server to store the details of their latest lunch or photos of their cat at play. Common people are afraid of coding. They prefer hosted services like Facebook where they just have to log in and start ranting about the latest change in the service instead of owning up and paying for the right to own their data and control the features of these services. Most companies don’t even think once before opting for a managed WordPress installation where they don’t have to worry about uptime or themes or plugins. They can concentrate on customer engagement and pay the bill at the end of the month.
Tentd or some new avatar of the tent ‘protocol’ needs to come down to at least the hated but familiar world of PHP-MySQL so that more people (bloggers) will experiment with it. They need to write a 15 minute famous install because really, all a person wants is the system to be up and running as soon as possible so that they can tell their friends about today’s sunset. They need to find a way to make life easier for the pseudo-programmer, who knows how to click the install button but cares not whether the application is PHP or blasphemous .NET as long as it’s working and it’s free to run.
What can we learn from all the above? Life in the own-your-social-data land isn’t easy. People who strive to do so look for the perfect way, tweak it well and stick to what they have, even if it’s just a Facebook account where they know they can just click download if they want to exit the network some day. I assure you, they won’t. So if tent wants to make as big a dent as WordPress did, they need to start thinking about easy. Tent can be like Tumblr to people – the option of posting an image, a video, a link, a quick note or a long post, all rolled into one. The issue is that it must be just as easy for people to set up too.