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There’s So Much More to the Internet Than This

May 9, 2010

If Facebook really is this poorly run, then, yeah, it’s doomed. Any site that treats its users so cruelly — part lab rats and part digital sharecroppers — is not long for this earth. Today it might seem like Facebook is the unstoppable juggernaut, that it’s the platform to end all platforms, etc etc. It’s not. In the era of the web platforms come and go with shocking speed. I don’t doubt that Facebook’s management has Bill Gates-style dreams of domination. But Microsoft’s domination of technology occurred pre-web and was also ended by the web. Facebook won’t be the next Microsoft because there won’t be a next Microsoft. And just like the internet treats censorship as damage and routes around it, the web will interpret Facebook’s drive to centralization and control as damage and route around it. So unless something changes the site may end up being nothing more than a glorified phonebook.

Facebook’s shockingly bad behavior, their complete refusal to recognize that their users are real people who have formed real communities, is now pushing the development of an Anti-Facebook. But it’s hard to be excited about such a project. Having people host their own identity data isn’t much of an improvement. One, unless it’s free and easy, most people won’t be bothered to do it. Two, such data repositories would be bright, glowing, pulsating attractors for the many hackers and identity thieves that prowl the web. And, three, on a higher level, one has to wonder if this strange desire to both share and publicize while controling and hoarding identity data is really any good for the web. This is the question I’d like to see addressed in light of Facebook going rouge: is social networking making the web better? Is it making the web more interesting? More useful?

I have my doubts. Yes these sites are fantastically popular and so they must be useful. But how useful? Much of the utility of these sites is that they’re email replacements. To some extent they also enable social discovery which is a good thing. And they do make it easy for non-technical people to start communities.

But all of these key benefits inevitably happen inside a closed garden. The functionality and data is hidden away, stowed inside in a heavily fortified bunker. Access is inevitably carefully controlled by a combination of privacy settings and APIs. And the data, once out there, is just begging to be abused. This is true of both Facebook and for any would-be decentralized version of Facebook. So creating a new, decentralized Facebook won’t change the essential logic of social networking on the web: the desire to create a kind of private internet where access must be granted and somebody is always watching, is always in control. The ‘social paradigm’ is, underneath, one of control and information hiding. The price of total personalization is total surveillance.

That is not such a great thing.

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