A Q&A discussion with Plaxo’s Joseph Smarr and John McCrea

There’s a big dustup today as Robert Scoble was removed from Facebook for running a Plaxo Script that was scraping the profile data (names and emails) of his opt-in friends. Robert was now let back into Facebook under an hour ago.

All of the above is just a taste of the real issue, as this leads to the bigger issue of privacy, ownership of data, and the future of openness on social networks.

A discussion with Plaxo at 2:30PM PST, I was typing very quickly, the bold are my questions and their answers, some of it is slightly paraphrased, however if I said something wrong, they can email me and I’ll immediately correct it.


Tell me about the event today, is this a planned feature?
This Facebook input feature has been in the works for some time, this was planned to be released today, but was still going to be tested. They spent today trying to explain to others, and also to find out what was happening.

Why didn’t you use use the FaceBook API?
FB doesn’t allow email addresses to be exported, which is critical to build a social graph. The script would grab the email addresses (which were an image), and profile data.

But the email is an image for a reason, so it doesn’t get scraped.
There’s explicity permission between members (as they are friends) so why prevent email addresses to be shared.

How does the script work?

Was planning to work with Facebook, as they did from LinkedIn a year ago (who were open to the export, and has been popular for Plaxo). Plaxo did not yet reach out to Facebook, and are now in damage control mode. There may be a conversation now.

Is Robert employed by Plaxo?
No, he’s an early adopter and eager user.

Where are you headed next?

We’re going to have a conversation with Facebook (that is starting now) and will role this feature out.

Who owns the profile data in Facebook?
The users the data that entered, and they should have access to all the data they’ve shared with their friends. The exchange between the members should be shared between and explicitly permission model.

What else should we know?
in 2008 Data portability thrust is where we want to head, we want to turn the model upsdie down, so instead of widgets going to the social graph, we would like to make the social graph very portable. This is an area where Plaxo as more depth than anyone else.

What other misconceptions need to be cleared up?
The big story is, this is going to be an open social web, this is going to provide clarity to users controlling portability of their data. This is not a battle between Facebook and Plaxo, we don’t want to steal their user base, we really believe we want to be able to let people connect to each other. We don’t want Robert to get shut down or for him to stop using Facebook, we want to co-exist.

Is this product a direct activity to increase the market value of Plaxo to be acquired?
This wasn’t a strategy that we would have chosen, it’s unexpected, and is something that users have been asking for a while. Explicetly, no, this is not a visiblity raising trick to any kind of M&A capability. We did not control the timing on this.


Update: Someone suggested that I should add my own opinion here. I was hesitating to do so as it’s all been said by hundreds or thousands of others. Anyways, here’s my opinion: Robert nor Plaxo don’t have the right to scrape these addresses without the explicit consent of the friends of Robert. I’m one of them, and I’d like to have an opt-in before Robert scrapes my data and exports them anywhere.

There’s a unsaid social contract that if you become my friend, I expect you to use my information that I share with you justly, and most of all, be considerate. On the other hand, what’s happening is just the taste of what’s to come, this is the year where the social graph will become portable, whether containers like Facebook or Plaxo allow it, or other tools come around to scrape it.