With all of the talk lately about Google consolidating its privacy policies, I've recalled an idea that I had a while ago. Typically we rely on companies outside of our control to collect, store, and use our data to make our use of their services more pleasurable (allegedly). But couldn't we, given the tools and knowledge, collect, store, and use our own data in the manner that we see fit, without the requirement that other entities be trusted with our data? Of course, what our online services do wasn't unheard of before they started doing it. We have often entrusted the administration of tasks too laborious or trivial for us to carry out on our own to specialized professionals. Few people bake their own bread these days except as a novelty, cars are typically serviced by trained technicians (at great expense), and teaching is left to teachers. However, there are features of personal data management, such as the potency of personally identifying data for manipulating users, that suggest benefits in personally managing ones own information.
Presently, I don't know of any tools that would allow a person to completely remove themselves from the many web services they use while keeping the most beneficial parts, but there is value in considering what those parts are to begin with. I don't think what draws people to MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, and all of the web forums and mailing lists is something bound up in the interfaces themselves. Rather, the social benefits conferred by users upon other users is what makes and breaks these microcosms of society. Because they merely act as conduits of social transaction, the value of the transactions is what should be in question. Our most meaningful and rewarding connections are the ones we have with individuals. Social networking sites rarely contribute to those kinds of connections.