Why might a social-media pioneer kill his online identity?

A memory synapse just fired and caused me to notice that I hadn’t seen hide nor hair of Sam Harrelson — an Asheville–area resident and one of the smartest, most interesting intellectual omnivores and tech thinkers I’ve discovered since moving to this area — on Twitter in ages. A quick hunt told me that he’s deleted his Twitter account, and had this to say about why:

The whole “social media” or web2.0 scene is blood-boiling to me because instead of creating open spaces (or a web), we’re locking ourselves and our data down into proprietary walled gardens that are much more interested in making money by observing our behaviors to maximize “relevant” advertising than creating sustainable platforms for human development. So, I killed my Facebook, Google and Twitter accounts last night. Don’t get me wrong… I don’t blame them. Twitter, Facebook, Google, Apple etc are corporations. Corporations are inherently out for themselves and their stock holders. I blame myself for falling into the trap of shiny and nifty free/freemium services in exchange for my data and my online identity. I want my children and students to grow up in an era that includes an open web that isn’t based on advertising or 3rd party cookie data mining. [emphasis mine] I’m doing what I can to make that happen.

Hits home, hard. Five years ago I was burning with excitement over the the social web’s immense promise for humanity, but pretty much from the get-go I saw a potential deal-killer inherent in the privatized environment in which it was being built: there would be a quid pro quo, and it wasn’t clear yet whether we end users were going to get a fair deal. Yes, the new web2.0 services were giving us incredibly powerful tools to extend our identities, connect with others, and get things done together. And on the cheap — often free. But what would these services take in return?

For Google, Facebook, Twitter, the answer has always been this: a slice of the value of our self-expression, online. There is immense and variegated value in our data. Wired, our every gesture can be is recorded — what we like and don’t like; how we make decisions about what to purchase or give attention to; who our friends are; our physical location; every last detail of what we actually do when using a connected device — and there’s huge value in that. And of course there’s value in any content we produce within these services as well.

I’ve always said it’s fine with me if others get rich from my online self-expression — as long as they recognize that they are using my data, and maintain an open, respectful, upfront, and fair dialog with me about how they plan to use my data. I hoped that the conventions of how institutions — corporations, governments, nonprofit organizations, etc. — related to their customers and constituents would move toward something like Doc Searls’ VRM model:

VRM stands for Vendor Relationship Management. VRM tools provide customers with both independence from vendors and better ways of engaging with vendors. The same tools can also support individuals’ relations with schools, churches, government entities and other kinds of organizations.

In a narrow sense, VRM is the reciprocal — the customer side — of CRM (or Customer Relationship Management). VRM tools provide customers with the means to bear their side of the relationship burden. They relieve CRM of the perceived need to “capture,” “acquire,” “lock in,” “manage,” and otherwise employ the language and thinking of slave-owners when dealing with customers. With VRM operating on the customer’s side, CRM systems will no longer be alone in trying to improve the ways companies relate to customers. Customers will be also be involved, as fully empowered participants, rather than as captive followers.

These days I’m not feeling like we’re moving in the right direction. Facebook constantly pushes the envelope of what, by fiat, it is doing with our data. Today, a couple of tinkerers discovered that Apple never bothered to let customers know that iPhones are collecting time-stamped location data.

I’m not quite ready to throw in the towel on participating in the current social-web landscape, but I think I understand why Sam bailed and I’m certainly feeling less blazingly sunny about the web proving to be a positive, democratizing force for humanity, at least in the short term. Clouds on the horizon. Sam says he’s still working for an open web — me too, and I’ll try to follow on this post with some looks at what’s happening out there to see that an open web is built and protected as a public commons.

My father, in forwarding me an article about how we expect too much from technology, had this to say: “Technology which is not fundamentally created and implemented to advance individual and collective well-being will be destructive of life generally. Technology created within the present world system will be on balance a negative force for life on earth.” I don’t necessarily want to believe that — changing the “present world system” is rather a tall order. But I worry that he may be right.

p.s. — the Wendell Berry poem Sam quotes in his post about nuking his Goog/FB/twitter accounts is a miracle, says more than I could ever manage about where all this touches the core. Read it.