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Social and connective lock-in

If you’ve been involved in the open Connectivism and Connective Knowledge courses, you’ve likely heard Stephen and I rant on some variation of “the knowledge is in the connections” or “the knowledge is the connections”. This principle applies not only to knowledge growth, but also to organizational value networks, social networks, underpins the concept of the semantic web, and so on. Connections matter – they change the impact and attributes of the entities they connect.

Companies realize this. Each new connection or connection-format that is under the control of an organization increases the value for the end user. Something as simple as the system wide clip-board for copying and pasting between applications adds huge value to the end user of a system (those that don’t recall how liberating this feature was when introduced in Windows likely had a similar sense of “woo hoo” when iOS added copy/paste functionality). Being able to mashup real estate data with Google maps generates more value than each element does alone. OpenStreetMap demonstrated the importance of connecting maps with user contributions in Haiti.

In CCK11, our discussion this week has been on personal learning environments and networks. Toward the end of our facilitator session today, Stephen and I were talking about new models of “lock-in”. Microsoft, with it’s Windows and Office platforms, was technically able to lock-in users and lock-out competitors. With the open web, companies are finding it extremely difficult to lock-in customers. Data flows fairly smoothly from one system to the next with API’s and import scripts. What’s a company to do??

Well, the obvious answer is to seek lock-in around something that can’t be readily moved – not for technological reasons, but for sociological ones. Facebook does this extremely well as it pollutes with its “like” feature and “Connect with Facebook” services. Consider the inclusion of “friend’s likes” into Bing searches: “With the like button now in place on more than 2.5 million websites, Facebook’s open graph is now at the scale where we’d expect Bing’s integration to start having a meaningful impact on search results.”

This is a different type of lock-in than what we’ve experienced in the past and one that produced two new concepts in our CCK11 meeting today (recording is available here – scroll down for Feb 25 session):

Social lock-in – where we are reluctant to move to new social networks because all of our friends/colleagues are part of our current social network service. When Twitter was experiencing downtime issues a few years ago, some individuals moved to Plurk,, or other services. But, in the end, the social lock-in of Twitter was sufficient to pull many back. We’re experiencing this to some degree in our work/research building a social learning network at Athabasca University – The Landing. If learners have a developed online identity and use proprietary services like Facebook and Twitter, what’s the motivation to create a separate social network within a learning context?

Connective lock-in – where we have lost control of our ability to define and shape connections because the proprietary connection tools ((Like, Facebook Connect, Twitter) are so ubiquitous and services (Delicious, EverNote, DropBox) are so easy to use.

As Stephen noted in our discussion, we should have control of our own connections. We shouldn’t offload the knowledge that exists in our connections to a mediating software service that then mines those connections to generate economic value. An important part of PLE/Ns is giving individuals the skills and technology to control our connections. And in the process, own our own knowledge. Unfortunately, open connection-forming protocols that allow us to connect with others and share content are not as developed as the Facebook Connect/Twitter models. This is an important topic that needs more discussion in relation to personal learning environments/networks and education.


  1. George

    Part of the reason that commercial offerings are so important in the social media landscape is that they work so well and are so easy to adopt and recommend to others.

    Lock-in is certainly a risk and as no service is guaranteed for ever (even paid for services) it’s something we need to be aware of.

    If you have your own domain, you can at least take responsibility for part of this. But even so, I can’t imagine hosting my own social bookmarking, social photos, videos, discussion and social graph to avoid lock-in. Maybe self-hosted services like diaspora will develop into something useful. Or perhaps gRSShopper points in the direction to the way forward.

    As you say, there’s an interesting debate to be had!

    Friday, February 25, 2011 at 2:46 pm | Permalink
  2. Chris Lott wrote:

    Just to play devil’s advocate in hope of some clarification…

    You write: “We shouldn’t offload the knowledge that exists in our connections to a mediating software service that then mines those connections to generate economic value,” as if the truth in this contention is self evident. Why? We derive value from the connections we make through those hosted, commercial systems… it’s one of the reasons most of us don’t plurk and most of us stick with delicious or Diigo. Shouldn’t the value we derive be weighed against the cost and effort of employing such systems ourselves?

    Friday, February 25, 2011 at 7:41 pm | Permalink
  3. AJ Cann wrote:

    I agree with the principles but not necessarily the (theoretical) practice suggested in this post. Is user control really more important than connectivity? The case of Twitter versus illustrates that well. In the end, connectivity tripumphs and as with facebook over friendfeed, bad money drives out good – see:

    Saturday, February 26, 2011 at 5:50 am | Permalink
  4. Responding to Chris, I think there is value in defining an exchange between myself and the online service, where I allow them to access my connections, and they in return offer me a free online service.

    The more contentious part comes into play when the company, like Facebook, claims to own those connections, and refuses to allow you to reach a new agreement with some other company. That’s the ‘lock-in’ part of it, and the result is that the company has assumed exclusive ownership over my connections & my knowledge.

    Even this can form the basis for a commercial exchange of value; it is roughly the equivalent of work-for-hire. But now the levels of compensation come into play. Simply being a host for such connections, and providing no other service, is a manifestly unfair price to pay for ownership of those connections. It is as though a bank declared that, simply by virtue of your depositing of money in the bank it is now the bank’s money, and you are not permitted to withdraw it and spend it elsewhere.

    Put in such terms, I think that the unfairness of the exchange is self-evident, and as that is the exchange currently practiced by social networks, George’s statement, though not qualified, is not unreasonable.

    Saturday, February 26, 2011 at 9:47 am | Permalink
  5. Chris Lott wrote:

    Stephen: that seems to be a circle back to traditional technological lock-in, in which the ability to productively more/remove one’s information is in question, and my original query regarding the value.

    Since this really seems to be mostly about Facebook, let’s consider it. I have no problem with Facebook using my connection data the way they so far have been. The return for me is well worth it in terms of both financially supporting the platform which remains the simplest and easiest way for me to interact socially with most of my family and some of my friends, it provides an element of social discovery, it provides a social recommender platform that I find useful on a regular basis, and it has made it easier for me to access and partake of various commercial services. Yet, for all that, I don’t really invest that much in Facebook– certainly not enough that even I, who am relatively strongly technically inclined, wish to attempt to duplicate it those things on my own (nor could I duplicate many of them), so perhaps the evident unfairness you experience with it just isn’t so evident to me.

    While some functionality of a platform like Facebook can be easily (or relatively easily) achieved, some of it can’t be because that functionality relies on having a very large population of users. That’s why it’s social right? I don’t see how I can re-create most of the things that are of value to me any more than I can leverage my shopping data to get companies to provide discounts or bring particular products to my stores… I leave that to the stores that gather that data through my affinity card (and I don’t begrudge them that data either… for me, it’s a fair exchange).

    Saturday, February 26, 2011 at 10:48 am | Permalink
  6. Danae Morris wrote:

    After reading this article I am now more interested in the concepts and ideas of connectivisim and connective knowledge.

    Wednesday, March 9, 2011 at 1:58 pm | Permalink