There is a lot of discussion these days about data portability, and it’s an important topic. Most of the blogosphere is abuzz around the idea of moving personal profile information and contact lists (your “friends”) out of one network and into another. People have mentioned that this kind of portability is key to reduce friction in the social networking arena. While I do agree that this is a good goal, the analogy to cellular number portability is not entirely accurate. I still haven’t found a mobile service provider that will help me transfer my numbers from a phone locked to one service into a phone locked to another service. To do this, I use some external tool (one advantage of being a Mac user is that I get this tool for “free” [okay, at no additional cost] from Apple). I’m sure people will use an external tool to move their social graph around, too, but the large-scale social networks currently restrict anyone from doing this.

Now that I’ve defined what I am not talking about, I’ll move on to what I am talking about. The kind of data portability that I see being important is the ability to take social application data and move it around from social network to social network. Some stand-alone social application (Flickr, YouTube, etc.) already support this in some way, allowing feeds to be displayed on social networks. But what about a truly social application, built on the social infrastructure that the social networks provide as part of their platforms? This kind of data portability is currently hard to come by, but providing it has some serious advantages to application developers. The biggest benefit is reach, which enables applications to stretch beyond the original social network that they were developed for. Applications that include data portability in their core architecture are able to use extended social networks such as friends that cross networks. This extension enables additional viral connections that applications that connect only to one network can’t enjoy.

I see data portability as something that empowers users to use their social connections in the way they see fit. Users should be the masters of their friends list, and there are two separate (but related) ways to accomplish this. One involves being able to move these lists between networks, but the other very useful way is for applications to support the entire social network of a person, spanning across general-purpose and special-purpose networks that people use for various reasons. All this will help support people taking control of their networks, engaging people in the whole network for purposes that will certainly spread beyond simple social interactions like “poking” into whole new realms of applications.

At Ringside Networks, we’re working with a Facebook application developer to put the final polish on a real application that will be deployed on Facebook, on the application’s own web site, and on a third-party site that has an interest in running the application. It will be great once that is in place as a sort of test bed for these ideas. I’ll comment or update this post once it is available.