Data flow and creating electricity

One of the difficult parts about constantly having about 35 tabs open in Firefox is that I can never remember how I got to a particular page; was it from a Google Reader shared item? From a Twitter post? From email? My regular RSS reader? It’s hard to say. Which explains why I have no idea how I came across this post from Mark Ury, an “experience architect” at Blast Radius. I’m glad I did, however, since Mark does a really nice job of looking at how focusing on data “ownership” in social networks kind of misses the point — the real value is in data flow.

This is a point that Fred Wilson of A VC and others have also made, and one Fred says was originally brought home to him by a comment Umair Haque of Bubblegeneration made. “I don’t think it’s the data that’s so valuable,” he said. “It’s the flow of the data through the service.” In his post, Mark Ury compares this to an electric-power generation system, which uses dams to take advantage of water flow in order to generate power. The water never stops, it’s only momentarily delayed — and while it’s being delayed, you can make use of it. As he puts it:

The real opportunity in flow constraint, though, is putting capacity to use and amplifying the effect. Data is like a river: you can dam it and generate electricity. That’s what Google did with search. They created a machine that, as we pass through it on our way to find something, harnesses our collective energy and turns our data flow into the most powerful asset of this generation.

As Mark notes, services that try to restrict the flow of data too much wind up either having issues with control or ownership debates, and in many cases the data — just like water — routes itself around the obstruction and finds a new path (i.e., a new service that isn’t as restrictive). That’s a balance that a site like Facebook is continually trying to strike: not strict enough to cause people to take their data flow elsewhere, but just restrictive enough to allow Facebook to make use of the data before letting it move on. Tim O’Reilly has described Web 2.0 as any application or service that tends to get better the more people use it.

Update:

If you’re like me and have a hard time remembering how you got to a certain page, Gabe “Techmeme” Rivera has posted a comment with a tip: right-click the page and check “page info” and you can see the referring page (unfortunately it doesn’t help me in this case because I’ve already closed the tab).

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