File Under: Social, Web Basics

Geocities, Identity and the Problem With Disappearing Web Services

Yahoo is shutting down its free web hosting site Geocities later this month. The company recently sent out a final notice to Geocities users telling them the service will shutdown October 26 and offering to port their data to Yahoo’s site hosting service. Yahoo charges $5 per month for its simple hosting plan.

While we have a bit nostalgia for the days of free Geocities accounts, let’s face it, most of that content is pretty outdated and often downright ugly. Most of us aren’t worried about Geocities disappearing. But there’s a larger issue we should be worried about — yet another once-popular service is disappearing from the web. What’s going to happen in ten years when the Googlehoo of 2020 decides to close down its aging Facebook website?

Even if the web services we use and rely on today offer a way to export our data when they disappear in the future, there’s a whole other component to those sites that’s currently nearly impossible to export — the relationships we’ve formed with other users.

It’s precisely those relationships that have led some to suggest, as Chris Messina does in a recent talk at the MindTrek conference, that identity is the real web platform — that the real value of social websites is not necessarily the data (though that can be important too), but connections between people.

Sadly, when sites disappear, whether they’re artifacts like Geocities or more modern examples like Pownce or Ma.gnolia, there’s never a way to recover the lost connections between people. Even when services return, as Pownce recently did, they don’t bring back the human connections.

The problem, as Messina points out in the video of his talk (embedded below) is that rather than focus on identity, most of today’s web services focus on the platform — whether it’s sharing photos on Flickr or broadcasting messages on Twitter.

That means not only is the majority of the service’s development effort expended toward improving the platform, the majority of export options are also geared toward the platform — export your photos or back up your blog posts. Very few sites concern themselves with backing up your friends and relationships.

But if the central focus of the web was identity, rather than specific platforms, we might see a far different set of strategies emerge. As WordPress developer Lloyd Budd writes on his blog, “If you really love your customers, the exported data (you offer) will be richer than the raw material they originally entered.” In other words, there would be a way to take not only your data, but your metadata as well.

Making identity into the platform is something OpenID is supposed to help do. However, thus far, it has largely failed to deliver anything of the sort. As Messina points out in the video, OpenID is improving, but it still has a long way to go.

In the mean, we’ll watch Geocities and other services disappear without being able to give back half of what their users gave to them.

Identity is the Platform from Chris Messina on Vimeo.

Photo by Sage/Flickr, CC

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