I had an interesting discussion with some friends the other day about how much as a generation we’ve come to rely on third parties to look after our data and what happens to our digital footprint once we’re no more.
One of them pointed out how he felt it necessary to run his own dedicated mail server so that he had full control of his mail and could get to it or, if it ever became necessary, destroy it without needing to rely on somebody else. This got me thinking about what and who else we rely on.
Take a minute to think about how many web-based services you use. This can be anything. From Gmail for email, to Flickr for photos, to Delicious for bookmarks and just about any other service you interact with and record some form or other of data on.
Just glancing through the bookmark folders on my browser I can see that a conservative guess would put the figure at around maybe 50 for me. Conservative because I know for a fact that I have at least double that amount in random social networking profiles or file organisation and to-do type websites.
But think a little deeper about the services you truly rely on. I use Gmail to collect all of my mail from various other web-based email clients and I also run approximately 10 more custom mailboxes though it. Google has control over all of that.
Facebook has owned the majority of my thoughts, activities and online social interactions from the last 7 years or so since I first joined.
Twitter has collected just short of 1500 of my brain farts and shared links.
WordPress CMS accounts for the vast majority of websites I build and therefore a significant portion of revenue I make on an annual basis.
The scary questions I’m forced to ask myself at this point are:
1. What happens when one of these services goes away for good?
2. What happens when I go away for good?
I tentatively admit that I might be able to cope without Twitter or Facebook. But Gmail? True, I could switch to another email provider, but not without massive upheaval and not without needing to transfer multiple gigage of data over.
It’s no secret that I am a huge advocate of WordPress. Maybe it’s because I’ve been with it from relatively early stages when I didn’t quite understand what it was for to see it grow into what I believe to be one of the most unrelentingly innovative pieces of software freely available today and something that powers 14.7% of the top 100,000 websites on the net. I still cannot understand how I am allowed to download it again and again without penalty or charge.
I’m not going to get into the GPL/freeware debate. That’s been done to death. I want to think more about where and how we rely on others to make stuff work for us. The significant rise of WordPress is due in no small part to the wealth of plugins available (snippets of code that can be easily clipped on to your WordPress site to add functionality). We rely heavily on those plugins. We rely on them to keep our client sites working and we rely on them to keep our own sites working. To keep this one working. With so much at stake you have to ask yourself why you allow yourself to do that. Not once have I seen a plugin author explicitly say they will support the growth of the plugin forever. How could they? Which means they could stop supporting it tomorrow. That means it can easily become outdated and “broken”. If you’ve been relying on that plugin to power multiple sites that means all those sites could eventually break. But you’ll still do it.
Now and next
Is it a by-product of today’s generation that we expect everything to be done for us and to work within a couple of clicks? At the expense of having full control of something ourselves? Have we regressed into a world of disposable information where we flit from one application to another until we find one that does exactly what we want, neglecting to clean up the data we left behind on the lesser apps? A username here, a password there – how much can that really hurt? Splintered data everywhere.
I find myself increasingly inclined to write as much website functionality as I can myself, before ‘resorting’ to a plugin. But with so many websites to maintain and so many rapid advancements in technology, is that feasible? At some point I’m going to come across something I don’t now how to do and have to find a plugin to sort it for me. Indeed, I already have. Many times. Every time I do that, I feel like I’ve lost a another little piece of control to something or someone external.
But what is it I’m trying to protect? What is it I’m trying to keep control over? How many tweets I’ve got about a particular article? Tweets owned by Twitter, not me. My bookmarks? Bookmarks externally hosted by Gimmebar. My Facebook pictures of ‘Rome 2011’? You get the idea.
Ultimately, this is the life I’ve chosen to live. This is the business I’ve chosen to work in. It’s fast paced, it’s disposable, it’s continually evolving. If I’m not comfortable with that, then I should change the way I live it. Delete my social profiles, transfer my bookmarks to my own computer, never get involved in online debates, revoke access from all apps on my phone. And whatever else it takes to regain full control of my digital self.
But where’s the fun in that?
Yes, we all rely massively on third parties. But what’s the alternative? Write everything yourself? Every script, every function, every plugin? Manage your own servers? Set up your own CDN? For the majority of us, this isn’t realistic, or in all honesty, particularly desirable. These third parties are far more advanced in what they do, to the point where I’m unlikely to ever match or better their service. And I’m ok with that.
So I’ll stick with jQuery. And I’ll stick with Gmail. And I’ll stick with Dropbox. And I’ll stick with everybody else I’ve invested a little faith in along the way.
At least until a better alternative comes along.