Fishtraps are devices that are easy to enter and difficult or impossible to exit from. Many products and web apps work the same way. One example may be the monthly service that requires a short website to sign up to but a very long phone call process to stop. Web services can do similar by making it really simple to sign up and start adding information, but almost impossible to export your data once you use the service. Companies spend a lot of time and effort optimizing their entrences. There are several books on Landing Page Optimization / SEO / AB testing on acquiring users. There’s basically nothing on how to allow users to gracefully leave. Easy web exiting capabilities for consumers would mean data (and permissions and API) interoperability which would mean open standards. This is one big reason why open standards are important. But open web standards over the last 10 years have been very rough and frustrating, much because of a reluctance of companies to allow their users to easily leave their platforms.
The Facebook Example
To start using Facebook, there’s one clean landing page. Once you get in, Facebook will give you lots of help finding friends for you. They will then recommend you to people who “might” know you, to help make sure that you get comfortable quickly. The entire process is incredibly simple and easy. But say you get tired of Facebook, and want to try Google+. You can close your Facebook account, but they will keep the information forever (allowing you to re-enter as easily as possible). If you search through the option settings, you may find that on the bottom of the “general account settings” page, there’s a way to “download a copy” of your Facebook data. This brings you to another page, as shown below.
If you click “Start My Archive”, you actually won’t get that much data. The full archive link is actually that small “expanded archive” link on the bottom. From there you enter your password and wait. Several hours later you’ll get an email letting you know your archive is ready. It comes as a folder with several HTML webpages of your pictures, friends, private messages, and profile information. Not CSV, not JSON, but HTML data. Then you realize that even that doesn’t have the status updates of you or your friends. I don’t know how many people use Facebook primarily as a photo sharing service, but I’m going to go on a limb and say that the main thing people do on Facebook is post to and read from status updates. So Facebook is essentially not giving the most important user data to them. And even then, there’s really no way I know of importing any of that data to Google+ or Twitter or Diaspora. Because in order to do that, these programs would have to make a program that you would download, just to format this HTML and then upload it to another service. The saddest part is that even this is considered better than average for web services.
The only existing protection against this seem to be the EU’s legal action and occasionally consumer sentiment. Hypothetically, it could be possible for a browser extension to warn users about lock-in on visits to website sign-up pages. If enough people used these or did some research, it could be possible that companies would take notice and respond accordingly. We really just need people to care. In the mean time, just realize. When you are on these platforms, you are essentially in a fish trap. Leaving may technically be feasible, but it’s made to be near impossible. For more info on “evil web design” I recommend checking out “ Evil By Design” by Chriss Nodder.The Sloth section goes into detail in what I am calling the fishtrap.