Executive summary: The UGC (User-Generated Content) service providers, if they aim to be a truly open service, should provide an option to the users so they can take their own data and content out of the service anytime they want. This will give peace of mind to the users, who are increasingly concerned about data lock-in. This open approach will actually increase user loyalty, quite contrary to the common belief of the service providers that a high barrier of exit will deter customer churn.

When I was in college, at one time I suffered from a mild insomnia for about 2 months, mainly from the back injury.

When I went to see a doctor, he gave me some sleeping pills, but he didn't tell me to take them - instead he said, "the idea that you have these sleeping pills in your closet and that you can take those pills anytime you want will give you peace of mind, which will help you fall asleep."

And you know the rest of the story - it went as the doc said. I didn't have to take a single pill and yet could sleep well, I guess from the peace of mind.


Now let's call this a "sleeping pills in the closet effect", short for "peace-of-mind-from-knowing-the-sleeping-pills-are-in-the-closet effect" ;)

I think this "sleeping pills in the closet effect" has to do with Web 2.0. (I can hear you say, "duh"?)

Web 2.0 is all about user generated content (UGC) and collective intelligence. But do the user generated content truly belong to the users?

Using a common sense, when something belongs to me completely, that means I can move it around the way I want to, whenever I want to. In other words, a measurestick for a truly open UGC service is whether or not the service provider allows users to take their content somewhere else whenever they want to.

Is this the way it is around the industry? Heck no. The barrier of entry for any UGC service is very low - signup is like 2 clicks away. But the barrier of exit, on the other hand, is invariably very high. Does Myspace give you all your data in one neat package when you tell them you are done with the service and now want to get out? No.

Let's say you have used Myspace for 2 years. The only way you can take your 2 years worth of content out of Myspace would be to go over the grinding steps of copying and pasting your blog entries and saving all the pictures by right clicking on each of them and choosing "save the picture as..."

Apparently, service providers are thinking that the more content you have on their service, and the more difficult it is to take those content out, then chances are you will probably give up on any thought of moving out and just stick with the service. This "user retention through data lock-in" might be just what the service providers want. Why?

UGC services are making money, in the form of advertisement and others, off the user content - more users, more amount of UGC, more ad revenue. But as pointed out by people like Scott Karp all the time, no portion of that revenue goes back to the users. In this sense, users are being exploited by the UGC service providers.

It's my content, from my memories in my life - and yet I can't take my content out of the service provider easily, because my content is busy making money for the service provider. This is not good.

Why can't I see a service provider that lets me take my content in a neat package whenever I want to? All the blog entries in a nice MS word or HTML format, all images in JPEGs, and so on - all my content packaged into one single zip file, ready to be transported.

Then I would be able to back up this single zip file, the priceless record of my life accumulated over the last n years, in multiple locations -- on my PC, on my hosted account in the data center, etc.

You want to back up your life record in multiple places, because you never know what will happen. Earthquakes. Service providers going down. You name them.

Recently Netian.com, one of the second-tier internet portal sites of Korea (still with millions of users), shut down without much prior notice, and for days, users were not even sure whether or not they could get their data back. If this kind of thing happens, the last thing I want would be to see my own data sinking down the water along with the service provider.

Service providers are afraid that if the barrier of exit is low, everyone will pack their stuff and move out whenever there's a new, better service. But just because I know I can take my content away anytime doesn't necessarily mean I actually take my content away all the time.

In fact, knowing the service provider allows me to take my content away anytime will give me the similar sort of "peace of mind", as suggested by "the sleeping pills in the closet" effect.

And, just as I didn't actually take any of the sleeping pills, I think the chances of users actually taking their content away from a service provider are very slim -- given that the service provider always strives to be ahead of competition in terms of service quality and innovations.

If the service provider is a sucky one, people will go away no matter how difficult it is to move their data. High barrier of exit doesn't automatically translate into customer retention -- we see this all the time in the mobile service industry.

Mena Trott of Six Apart said blogs will evolve into a platform on whichpeople will archive and present 20 years worth of content. Let's face it: If I'm talking about 20 years worth of my content, I'll definitely want to make sure a) it doesn't go anywhere and b) I have a full control over it. Ensuring these would be a must-have, not a good-to-have feature to be provided by the UGC service providers.

I hope more UGC and Web 2.0 service providers will think along these lines.
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