If you have spent any time online using social networks like LinkedIn or Facebook, you know they can be difficult to grow your network and add contacts. But even harder is the ability to extract your contacts once you have built up a reasonably sized network. None of the social networks makes it very easy to get this information.
Why would you want to do this? Several reasons. First is the peace of mind that you have control over your own data. Should you decide to leave the network, or should the network decided to leave you (either for cause or for lack of funds to continue operations), it would be nice to have your contacts tucked safely on your own hard drive. Second is the ability to do some targeted marketing emails or just do some research: none of the networks has the right search fields when you need to find everyone that lives in a certain area with a certain job or works for a specific company. Sometimes I can find people on my network using the search tools, but often I can't. And wouldn't it be nice to see if everyone that is on your LinkedIn network is also on your Facebook network? Or not, if you are still trying to keep these two separate?
Before you hit the reply key and tell me that there are several different services that allow for you to synchronize your contacts, that isn't quite what I mean. Yes, there are services such as Plaxo's Pulse and MyOtherDrive.com that allow for synchronization of your desktop to their cloud-based contact list, but that is usually in one direction only (Pulse offers de-duplication services and better searching tools if you want to pay them for a premium membership.) Say I don't want to have anyone from my last employer on my LinkedIn network, because I left that job under a dark cloud. (Purely hypothetical, of course, not that I am saying that this ever happened to me!) It isn't easy to find this out with these networks, even if you do know how to manipulate their complex privacy settings.
So if you are still reading down here, I suggest you take a look at a Web service called Open Xchange, at ox.io. You can set up a free account and within a few minutes have it setup to automatically bring in all of your contacts from Google's Gmail, LinkedIn, Facebook, and a few other places as well. What is more important though is that you can easily publish all this information (or some of it) to a Web site, or download it to a comma-separated file, so that you stay in control of your data at all times.
OX is the same technology that is white-labled by Network Solutions and 1&1 Internet as their own email services. You can also purchase a software license if you don't want to run it across the Internet and on your own Linux servers. It has a lot more under the hood, including plug-ins for Microsoft Outlook, import/export of calendar items, iPhone apps and a shared document repository. If you want to get a feel for the software, go on over to my screencast video that I just finished on the product here.
I am glad to see products like OX take hold: all of us need better and more open ways to control our contacts.