LJ Archive


Waving Goodbye to Facebook

Doc Searls

Issue #196, August 2010

We need an alternative. Google Wave is one possibility.

In a blog post last April titled “Building the Social Web Together”, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook wrote, “The power of the open graph is that it helps to create a smarter, personalized Web that gets better with every action taken.” The “open graph” of which he speaks is your social graph—your collection of contacts—on Facebook, augmented by “personalized experiences” with the likes of “Microsoft Docs, Yelp and Pandora”—which are Facebook's “three pre-selected partners”.

Responding in his own Newsweek blog, Barrett Sheridan called Zuckerberg's plans a “Play to Take Over the Entire Internet”. In TechCrunch, MG Siegler's headline read, “I Think Facebook Just Seized Control Of The Internet”. Whether or not Facebook is that ambitious, it won't succeed at anything other than enlarging itself. The limits to that are those of any private architecture. It can get big, but not bigger than the planet. What Facebook has built is the Great Indoors. A lot of people like going there, just like a lot of people like going to shopping malls. But Facebook is a building, not geology.

The Web is geology. It is a wide-open public space on which private and public structures can be built in boundless varieties. Linux is probably the most widely used building material below and within those structures. Calculating its value is pointless, because—as Eric S. Raymond made clear long ago—Linux has use value more than sale value. As useful stuff, its leverage is boundless and, therefore, incalculable. It also will last as long as it remains useful.

The same cannot be said of Facebook, whose value is quite calculable and which will thrive only as long as its revenue model and its investors' patience holds out. Both of those will be shortened by the dissatisfaction of users, which Facebook has been risking increasingly over the years.

To see how this has been going, it helps to check with Facebook's “Eroding Privacy Policy: A Timeline”, by the EFF. It shows how, during the five years of its existence, Facebook's privacy policy has ratcheted down from respectful to exploitative. And, why not? Facebook's customers are advertisers, not users. As a user, your influence on Facebook rounds to zero. The company is far more interested in making you into better bait for advertisers and visitors who click on ads. A side benefit is “a smarter, personalized Web” that is not the Web at all, but rather an indoor commercial habitat with some nice conveniences.

We've seen this movie before, many times. The most important and dramatic example is Microsoft's “HailStorm”, which arrived and flopped in 2001. As with all heavy weather, it threatened to change (at least superficially) the Web's geology...

The HailStorm architecture is designed for seamless extensibility and consistency across services. It provides common identity, messaging, naming, navigation, security, role-mapping, data modeling, metering and error handling across all “HailStorm” services. And rather than risk compromising the user-centric model by having advertisers pay for them, the people receiving the value—end users—will be the primary source of revenue. “HailStorm” will help move the Internet to end-user subscriptions, in which users pay for value received.

...by putting the Net itself inside Microsoft's own building. That didn't work. Nor will anything Facebook does for roughly the same purposes.

Of course, Microsoft wasn't talking about the real Internet. It was talking about the commercial activity happening on top of the Net. Likewise, Facebook isn't talking about the Web, but rather the “social networking” that's been all the craze during the past few years, and which seems to be happening mostly within and between commercial entities.

As Facebook seems determined not to learn from the failings of its elders, how about moving past all the commercial interests here? How about making our own social networks—ones that are owned by nobody (or close enough), used by everybody and improved by anybody? How would we do that?

One possibility is Google's Wave. It's a way to meet, collaborate, share files and do other literally social stuff. It's also an open-source project that still needs a lot of shaking down. And, although Google hosts the first incarnation, it's still there for anybody else to run with it, fork it or whatever. Here's how Joel David Palmer summed up the possibilities, in a blog post by Steven Hodson:

At the extreme in personal control, we could each configure our own computer as a little wave server and have primary control of our social networking server logs. Less extreme than this, any community or association that's used to serving e-mail could as easily and securely serve waves to their group.

Widespread adoption of waves would automatically reclaim a lot of user privacy and personal responsibility for on-line communications of every kind. The contents cannot be mined by outside interests without committing criminal acts—waves are as private as e-mail.

Waves give you and your connections complete control over your social networking experience, and real opportunities for creative collaboration. A wave can be e-mail, telephone, IM, videophone, collaboration platform, art form, performance venue. Transitioning to waves appears to be a good strategy toward a collaborative social Web that is peer-to-peer rather than server-client.

Sounds good to me. If you've got any better ideas, let's hear them. Maybe we can coax some Facebook occupants—including ourselves, in many cases—to come enjoy the Great Outdoors.

Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal. He is also a fellow with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University and the Center for Information Technology and Society at UC Santa Barbara.

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