March 23, 2013 at 15:00 PM EDT
(Web) Sandcastles Made Of Sand
If there is one sliver lining in the Google Reader shutdown that has enraged the blogosphere (OK fine, the tech blogosphere), it's the fact that Google offers a way for Reader users to export their RSS subscriptions using its Google Takeout service. Actually, Google Takeout lets users of most major Google services remove their data from the Google ecosystem at any time. This is how it should be done.
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If there is one sliver lining in the Google Reader shutdown that has enraged the blogosphere (OK fine, the tech blogosphere), it’s the fact that Google offers a way for Reader users to export their RSS subscriptions using its Google Takeout service. Actually, Google Takeout lets users of most major Google services remove their data from the Google ecosystem at any time. This is how it should be done.

As I sat through the demo for yet another mobile/social/data-hungry app this week – one that probably won’t make it a year before quietly slinking off into the ether of the deadpool – it struck me how radically the web has changed the disposability of our tools; the tools that allow us to create, interact with and share our data.

We’ve become a bit too naive, blind and trusting in terms of where we’ve been putting our data lately. Though for all its faults, at least Google has committed to making our RSS subscriptions and other data portable. And Twitter now allows for archive exports.

But everyone else? Who knows?

Our data, our personal data, is what all of today’s consumer-facing services are building themselves on top of. They’re our thoughts du jour, our photographs and videos, our daily habits, the places we go or plan to go, our real-world interpersonal connections, our hobbies and interests, our news-reading preferences, each step we take, each emoji-filled message we send, each game we play, our scores, our kids our pets, and so on.

It’s good and fine and right that the tools we use to interact with all the above change regularly. That we’re allowed to go through phases and trends with one eye on the horizon for what’s next.

Maybe we’re too caught up in ever-changing trends to have a moment to stop and think about the digital wake we create or what responsibility it is of anyone to manage it.

For instance, maybe we won’t always be into photo filters, and will rather look back at pictures from the 2010′s the way a Gen Xer looks back on stirrup pants and jelly bracelets and popped collars on jean jackets. Or how a Gen Yer looks back on overalls and Blossom hats and t-shirts, knotted to the side.

Oh, a photo-filtered picture, we’ll laugh at our younger selves, shaking our heads. I know when that one’s from.

Maybe we’ll also laugh about that phase we went through where we hung out in private hidey-holes on mobile like Path, WhatsApp, Viber, Tango and SnapChat, eschewing the drama of lives lived in public on the social backbone that is Facebook.

Or maybe not.

Maybe we’re too caught up in ever-changing trends to have a moment to stop and think about the digital wake we create or what responsibility it is of anyone to manage it. Maybe all we care about is the new new thing, even as servers shut down, deleting our terabytes of virtual creations. Who needs them anyway? The Library of Congress has our tweets. What else matters?

I kid, I kid.

But here’s the thing: It’s a given that almost all apps will come to the end of their independent lives at some point, and often they will come to the end of their actual lives – whether through “declining usage,” as cited by Google regarding the Reader shutdown, or because they failed to live up to the hype (see: 95 percent of startups), or because they did live up to the hype, and that hype happened to have a price tag attached that can’t be resisted.

And there are just so many startups now. So many seed-funded. So many apps. So many platforms – web, mobile, tablet, TV, car, body…brain?

Should we be okay with the fact that with a thousand tiny little deaths, our data trails die, too?

Users who fawned over an app’s creation, contributing their time and energy into making New-Fangled SOLOMO Photo Sharing InstaBot Checkin Whatnot the “next big thing,” don’t get a portion of the final paycheck when the exit is good. And when things go badly, they sometimes don’t even get to say goodbye. The app just disappears.

Should we be okay with the fact that with a thousand tiny little deaths, our data trails die, too? Because that’s what’s happening. Even Google’s Takeout solution is not perfect. We might have our subscriptions, but what of our tags, our stars, our custom RSS-based search engines that can pull up blog posts from sites that have long since disappeared from the face of the public Internet?

Gone, gone, gone for as much as Google cares.

Startups like Feedly and others at least are playing the role of digital EMT – zapping our dying data back to life. (Pro tip: re-create your exact, case-sensitive Reader tags in Feedly’s preferences to save your Reader tag history. You’re welcome.) Similarly, Posthaven recently launched as a paid service to store Posterous data forever, following its Twitter acquisition.

These kinds of rescue attempts are still rare, though. And for smaller services getting shut down, no one bothers.

Our (web) castles are made of sand, and the tides are regular. Can we start taking data portability more seriously please?

P.S. From this point forward, and with a nod to Google for the inspiration, I will ask your startup this: What happens to my data when you die?

Have an answer ready.

Image credit: Shutterstock


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