Last week a lot of us online got to ponder the question: “Do you want to be a social media slut, or not?”

Last Monday morning the web was abuzz with the news that uber-blogger Robert Scoble had been kicked off of the social network site, facebook. Reason? He had run an early version of a script from a social media company called Plaxo. The script combed through personal information about Scoble’s 5000 facebook friends and created a database of info they had shared. It even grabbed their email addresses, which facebook protects by rendering them as graphics on the facebook site. The Plaxo script used optical character recognition to decode them. But, that’s not important. What is important is that this sort of “site scraping” violates the Terms of Service agreement (TOS) facebook has with its users. And, for that, Scoble’s account was turned off.

Scoble argued that he was just testing the script and that he doesn’t plan on using the data he harvested (this came after a hue and cry about his scraping). He also made it clear that he also wanted to “push facebook’s buttons”, which he did in spades.

Why the concern? There were two camps. One argued that Scoble was a limelight hog who should have known full-well that he was violating facebook’s Terms of Service agreement and should have expected to be kicked off. And, that facebook was right to do it. And that he was a corporate spy.

The other camp was up-in-arms that although facebook happily harvests email addresses from Gmail accounts when new users signs up, it doesn’t pony up those addresses to other social media services like Plaxo. It does, however, make use of tons of our personal data for its own use and, in aggregate, to the benefit of advertisers and partners.

Scoble argued that if folks were all atwitter about him scraping 5000 email addresses from facebook, they should be even more upset about facebook reaping millions of email addresses from Gmail. Web entrepreneur Jason Calacanis called facebook a data hog that was at risk of being slaughtered.It wasn’t a pretty week.

After things blew over and facebook gave Scoble his account back, two clear point remained for me.

First, we all really need to pay more attention to how we treat our personal information. Right now I think a lot of us are social media sluts. We’ll jump in bed with whatever good-looking social media site promises good times and Super Pokes. Hell, for a chance to play Scrabble with somebody in Key Largo, we’ll dish out our email address and birthday. And, we’ll give folks we don’t really know that well access to it on sites like facebook.

Second, we need a way to take back control of our personal data and the data of folks who have given us some limited rights to use it. I would like to be able to walk away from facebook and take the contacts, posts, etc. with me. Right now the facebook TOS gives facebook the rights to use everything I post there for whatever purposes. Fair’s fair. We shouldn’t be arguing amongst ourselves about whose data it is. We should be agreeing that, for sure, it shouldn’t be the sole property of a company that won’t give it back.

As the brilliant Doc Searles argues, it’s pointless to petition facebook et al to make changes, the online community needs to spend its own time creating new rules of engagement when it comes to Internet identity. That’s exactly what’s going to start happening at the upcoming Internet Identity Workshop. It’s an important discussion. If we all stopped playing Scrabulous long enough to have it, that is.

Late breaking news: Just after I filed this column the news broke that both facebook and Google have now joined the Data Portability Workgroup. This means that facebook representatives should now be working towards the development of a common means of moving personal data in and out of social media sites. In theory this is good news. But, there is no guarantee that the workgroup will come up with anything that sticks. And, in the meantime, don’t hold your breath that facebook will change its one-sided terms of service any time soon.


Wayne MacPhail

Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years. He was the managing editor of Hamilton Magazine and was a reporter and editor at The Hamilton Spectator until he founded Southam InfoLab,...