over 10 years on 2008-06-01


last week i decided that i wanted one single address book, so i went through the process of pulling in my contacts from a wide array of disparate sources into a single database.  i pulled together a very rich set of sources including outlook, various mail program ‘auto complete’ functions, gmail, my work mail, linkedin, and facebook…


1. i was able to find options, scripts, etc for every single data source i looked at that allowed me to get my contact information into a csv format except for fb.  facebook, as everyone knows, used to allow you to export your contacts (in fact, several of my outlook entries still say ‘courtesy of thefacebook.com’) but those days are long over. the solution is odesk (or, the availability of cheap on the fly human labor).  within 24 hours i was able to get a prefect spreadsheet of all of my facebook contact information by hiring someone in india through odesk to go contact by contact for me on the website, recording name, email addresses, phone numbers, and instant message names – all for about 8 cents a contact.  mechanical turk would have been another solution, but required more setup and i was worried about accountability for the work.

2. contacts are a “bitch”.  the level of duplication across sources was unsurprisingly very high and i had to write some very annoyingly complicated functions to get rid of duplicates, merge contacts by name, email, and phone, and then rank the relative quality of contact information.  it would be much easier if people each had a unique identifier, but figuring out how to identify and weave together people’s information is very difficult.

3. the concept of ‘lock in’ is over-played:  having a consolidated list of all my contacts is great, i feel totally portable across devices (iphone to blackberry, facebook to twitter) for the low cost of a few hours of my time and about $60.  i highly recommend it.  another way to put it is that if facebook deleted my account, i could now re-create probably 90% of my network in a week on a new account using the source relationship information …

4. if it isn’t worth my time to save your contact info in my own personal database, then why bother:  this method helped me devise a new rule in how to manage contacts.   i set up for myself a google form (feeding google spreadsheets) to keep track of all new contacts – it has fields for name, email, phone, and a note.  whenever i meet someone or ‘friend’ someone on facebook i fill out the little ‘clouded’ form.  if i can’t be bothered to fill out such a small form with a new contact, then the rule is that the contact information is not worth having, so i won’t save the business card, or accept the friend request.  think of it as an intentional artificial barrier to help me control my contact list.

5. 'syncing' is past tense:  from my experience trying to whip my contact sources into shape, i feel more than ever that the concept of syncing across services is very hard and its usefulness is overrated.  the real solution is: 

a.  consolidation to a single highly accessible format 

b.  always available high bandwidth cloud access with search and social applications that will let you always retrace your steps and find what you need.  put differently, the cloud negates the need for sync, which was only important when there was a high likelihood of needing information when your device was "offline", and/or bandwidth was so scarce that it was too hard to pull down another copy from the cloud.  ‘sync’ is a nerdy and interesting problem, but it isn’t useful in the real world

original swl blogposts and letters 2007-2010