Update 7/07: See also Fyre Exyt, a new project of Disintermedia which aims to help people escape walled gardens and find online services which support open standards, and preferably free code.  

One Rule To Ring Them All - Quit FaceBook Day

I recently put up a status message on my FaceBook profile stating:

“­­I’m committing FaeceBook suicide by the December solstice. In the meantime, I’m launching a project to document both its useful features, and it downsides, and design a free, open, decentralized replacement based on open standards and respect for privacy - no scraping your personal data for targeted advertising without your permission. One substitute I intend to actively work with the developer of is https://www.coactivate.org. An open alternative for status messages is http://www.identi.ca/. Copy this status update if you support this project!­­”

Then, a few days later, I learned about an organized ‘Quit FaceBook Day‘ which is encouraging people to delete their accounts on the rogue social networking site on May 31 of this year, so I’ve decided to up the ante, and delete with the crowd. Why? ­I’m not­ going to argue that FB isn’t useful. Clearly it serves some purpose for the millions of people who have signed up for accounts over the last four years, but there are a lot of things people need to know about FB.

For a start, FB reserves the right to sell licenses to other companies to use all the personal data you add to the site, from status messages, comments and discussions, to your photos and videos (see their Terms of [Dis]Service, section 2, paragraph 1). Where more enlightened social media sites like FlickR recognize your rights to keep own data private, or share it in a way you choose using CreativeCommons licenses, FB prefer to privatize and monetize it. Don’t hold your breath waiting for royalty cheques either, FB keeps any money they make out of your data.

Another thing a lot of people don’t know about FB is that CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been an identity thief since his days at Harvard University. According to an article in the school paper The Harvard Crimson the precursor of FB was a site called FaceMush, for which he hacked into the student files at Harvard University and illegally copied students’ ID photos.Clearly the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, and there’s been a lot of talk among the digerati about the woeful invasions of privacy that seem to be a built-in part of every upgrade or reorganization of FB. Most recently, the charming euphimistic and woefully inaccurate ‘Instant Personalization’ allowed other companies to pay a license to datamine all FB users information. Again, don’t expect to get a cut of the income FB generates whoring your profile to all comers. Also, did you know FB have been content-scanning and censoring your private messages to your FB friends?

Instructions on how to opt-out of Instant Personalization were quickly provided by the Electronic Frontiers Foundation, and Reclaim Privacy have created a free code tool for users to check and fix leaks in their privacy settings, but would a responsible social service provider need to third parties to provide a usable interface for their privacy settings? I don’t think so. There’s quite a few things I reckon they would do, and the EFF have provided a concise list in the form of a Bill of Privacy Rights for Social Network Users. OpenSocialWeb considered similar issues about a year ago in their Bill of Social Rights.

Only supporting services that respect these rights is a quiet, and practical way to protest these issues. However, there are always certain risks to using ‘free services’ online, run by huge, faceless entities. For example, whatever company owns a service at any given time can break it, delete it, or start charging for it, at any time. Examples:

* When Yahoo! boughts EGroups in 2000, and merged it with their YahooGroups service, a number of the Egroups lists I was maintaining were broken. Yahoo didn’t care, and nothing got fixed, and this simply confirmed my building suspicion that using corporate-controlled communication tools - even if they are free as in beer - has some major risks.

* In 1999 Yahoo! also bought GeoCities, which was one of the earliest free homepage hosts and online communities on the web - in many ways the FB of its day. In 2009 Yahoo decided to close GeoCities, and remove years worth of people’s online expression from the public web. Fortunately there were efforts to mirror as much of GeoCities as possible before it went down, y by various groups including the Internet Archive, Reocities, and the Archive Team. Various bits of it have also been archived by InternetArchaeology.org (mainly imagery).

* 2010 - Ning, a site that hosts user created social networks, announced that it was going to start charging groups US$200 per year to keep using their social network.­ Many of the group with Ning networks are intimidated by the technical work and time required to transition to another service, so they throw up their hands and give Ning their protection money. A classic case of vendor lock-in.

Filed May 24th, 2010 under open social networks
  1. Damn interesting article strypes!

    Some really good arguments against FB. Personally I’ve been getting fed up of FB - it’s a lot less fun since the privacy changes, people are more afraid to share things, have fun profile pictures etc, and I guess I’ve just in general become fairly apathetic about the site in general.

    I don’t plan on quitting though - mostly because I need to use FB for work (only a small part of my job though) and there’s nothing out there at the moment that I feel is worth switching to replace it yet. I think that’s the core thing - for some people Twitter, blog and IM can replace FB for the majority of things and a lot of the people making noise about quitting FB in the ‘blogosphere’ are in that class.

    For those of us that aren’t ‘urban professionals’ Twitter is of limited use as a social networking tool. In my experience from work, people go on Twitter for a lot of reasons but there’s a whole lot of very mercenary networking and self promotion that goes on masquerading as legitimate social interaction, which is quite different to Facebook and other (supposed) private sharing services (outside of ‘pages’).

    I am pessimistic about the chances of Diaspora making it into the mainstream any time soon - it’s a fascinating concept, but I think the key flaw is that it will require client software to be installed on the PC, and coupled with that, for the user to consciously agree to sharing data directly from their PC. Even if this is in reality a non-issue, perceived hassle and security risks will almost certainly prevent it from reaching the mainstream.

    The idea is sound, I just think the technology is not there yet - when 70%+ of browsers support Gears style client-side interaction natively this sort of functionality would be possible with, to the user, nothing more than simply visiting a website - which I believe is crucial to the success of any supposed Twitter/FB replacement.

    Marketing and branding are key to the success of almost anything meant to appeal to the mainstream and replace a popular service. There’s plenty of examples of truly revolutionary services that have succeeded without overt marketing, but in just about all cases branding and presentation were spot on for the time they hit the ‘net. When looking to target the mainstream, things such as choosing a decent domain name and brand becomes key when the market goes outside of IT professionals and fringe groups and into the mainstream, and it’s where so many open concepts fall down

    As for things like Ning and Blogspot (and geocities to an extent back in the day), vendor lock in has usually already happened. Any attempt to promote yourself or your cause or your business via a service like this will promote that service at least as much as what you think you are promoting - it’s the nature of how these services work. Blogspot blogs etc rarely have much visibility in search engines and it’s because effectively you don’t have your own site - your site is ranked as a subsection of blogspot or whatever rather than in it’s own right. When a user of Ning/other locked in ‘free’ service decides to quit, it’s impossible to put in proper redirects etc to your new site and you have to start completely from scratch in terms of domain authority. You may not even be considered by search engines as the original source of your own content, making your new site almost invisible!

    The only sane approach is to own your own domains - don’t use blablabla.somesite.com - you are then locked in to some site. If some site lets you forward your domain to it and handles it properly (Ning actually does this) then fine, as you can move the site somewhere else. Otherwise you need to have your own webhosting (or use a friend’s).

    Comment by Miles Carter on May 24, 2010 at 2:36 pm

  2. I have a Ning site, which I’m fairly happy with as far as features, but Ning as a company seem to have suddenly come down with a case of the greeds and are kicking out all their free users. (I pay, but I don’t like that they’re retargeting aggressively toward marketers and other rich organisations and away from community groups - it’s like urban gentrification, knocking down all the ‘interesting’ little shops.)

    I agree that at present there’s nothing quite like Facebook, and there should be. Unlike many I never went into Facebook with ANY expectation of ‘privacy’ so it’s serving me quite well. I think one of Facebook’s features is that it males people use their real names and show their real affiliations - to me it’s a sign of the Internet growing up, leaving the adolescent ‘anonymous troll’ phase of the 1990s and starting to become an adult medium where people have real identities, real jobs, and real lives and aren’t afraid to say clearly and to everyone who they are and what they stand for. Like David Brin, I think this move toward a ‘transparent society’ is both inevitable and long overdue, and that on the whole it’s a very good thing.

    What I dislike about Facebook is more subtle: one, that it creates an ILLUSION of privacy that does not in fact exist, which can lure the unwary into sharing more than they want the whole world to know; and two, and much more importantly, that it is controlled by a single organisation and therefore breaks the Web’s decentralised model.

    I think we should fight AGAINST centralisation (and therefore Google, Facebook, the Apple App Store lockdown and other centralising policies) with all our might - but that we should stand FOR open disclosure of personal identity and the creation of a sane, adult, transparent culture of personal responsibility for one’s communications and actions on the Net.

    If we want transparency and accountability in government and corporate life, we must begin by modelling these values in our personal lives, so they flow over into our activism and our commerce. Otherwise we risk creating the very walls of secrecy we protest against.

    However, joining the transparent Net society should be done on people’s own terms and under their own control, which is why I support decentralised systems. I hope either Google Wave or Diaspora turn out to be workable. Facebook just happened to hit the sweet spot of usability and critical mass first. We should learn from what they did right, and move on without regrets to a better approach as soon as it is available.

    Unless you posted drunk naked photos of yourself at your high school prom to six billion of your closest friends, in which case… yeah, some regrets, but still, let’s move on and grow up and realise we can’t stay anonymous forever, okay?

    Comment by Nate on May 31, 2010 at 8:50 pm

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