Monday, May 31, 2010

Why I Didn't Quit Facebook

As always the opinions expressed in this posting are solely the author's and do not reflect any stances held by Intel.
A recent article by @mediaphyter asked the valid question about whether those who were threatening to quit Facebook over privacy issues actually ever quit. While I don't believe I actually ever threatened to quit Facebook, I certainly found the privacy issues compelling and considered it at least for a while. Moreover, I certainly posted enough tweets about the topic to be considered to be an agitator, because even if I tried to conscientious about being balanced, there was certainly more noise and more news on the outraged side than the opposite.

Thus, in all fairness, I must ask myself if I am being hypocritical by not quitting. At the same time, those of you following along at home can ask yourselves the same questions. Which of these answers ring true and which are mere rationalizing? Do you have reasons for quitting or not quitting that vary?

First, I have little to lose by quitting Facebook. Literally. I have perhaps a dozen or so friends on Facebook. Now, while there are some Facebook connections that I don't have contact with in any other way, I don't actually connect much with any of them. On would hope that most Facebook users would have more to lose if they lost the Facebook connection. (I would certainly feel that way if we were discussing Twitter, losing those connections would definitely be felt. The obvious presumption is that most people would feel the same way about their Facebook accounts. Asked that way, it is understandable why many people are stuck, which is what prompted one of the comments in the article above about "people talking about quitting not really wanting to do it".)

The next question the seems most relevant is whether I would act hypocritical after I quit. If one is quitting in protest, one should not continue to perform acts that line the pockets of the entity one is protesting against. That means that upon quitting Facebook, one shouldn't visit web pages hosted on Facebook. That would prove to be a much stiffer challenge. There are definitely sources like Cruel's Not Cool and F-Secure that I visit quite often by clicking links on Twitter. It would be difficult to exclude those sources from things I want to re-tweet simply because I was protesting Facebook's privacy policies.

However, the question that is most pressing is whether Facebook's privacy changes have swung back far enough to be acceptable. All of us have probably read fundamentally negative reviews like this one in eWeek. The key point in the article is that privacy now requires an opt-out decision where it used to be opt-in. That is that privacy used to be an easy default to get and now it takes more work.

Having actually tried the most recent changes to the privacy settings, I can report the pages to do so seemed very easy to navigate. Yes, if you want fine-grained control like I do, it isn't simply a one-click operation. However, one-click did get a surprising number to be close enough. Being relatively technically savvy, I will not make that a blanket pronouncement. The one-click solution is not one-size-fits-all, and the options underneath are still numerous and not necessarily obvious. Still, it did seem possible and not overly difficult to return Facebook to an essentially private service.

More important for me was the ability to opt-out completely and conveniently from the instant personalization. That is not only a privacy but a security issue. I consider identity theft and spear-phishing, using available information to formulate a more credible fake message, to be very significant problems that I don't want to be exposed to unnecessarily. Therefore, I keep most personal information off the web, with the exception of the resume information I publish on LinkedIn. Being able to restrict information from being given to applications that I am not using was a priority and one of my major concerns. Fixing that item was key for me in deciding not to abandon Facebook.

Does that make me happy about the changes in Facebook? No. The change in Terms-of-service which eroded my privacy was not welcome. Any changes that appear to erode my rights are not welcome.

Moreover, it certainly added to my levels of concerns and actually raised my consciousness about privacy and security threats I had not previously considered. Like most people, I would be quite satisfied to be blissfully ignorant as long as doing so isn't putting me at risk. Making those risks apparent may be good for me in the long run, but they are not pleasant to discover.

Therefore, I did not quit Facebook. I am not planning on doing so. However, I am still not happy about the reasons why it was worth considering quitting.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Toppling Facebook

Recently Facebook's changes to their privacy policy and privacy controls have made many people upset. Enough so, that there are quite a few who are leaving Facebook at least temporarily.

Just deactivated my FB account.less than a minute ago via DestroyTwitter

Others are facing the prospect of monitoring and changing their Facebook settings on a frequent and regular basis just to maintain the status quo.

I bet I will have to change my #faceboom #privacy settings. Again. It's becoming a weekly event, no?less than a minute ago via TweetCaster

This flap has inspired an almost endless stream of "how to adjust your Facebook privacy settings" or "how to delete your facebook account" tweets, blogs, and articles, such as this one by Senator Al Franken.

This article on wired goes so far as to suggest that an open source alternative to Facebook be built. As a programmer, this caught my attention. The technical challenge isn't that great. In fact, it falls into the domain of what open source is actually best at, capturing, recreating, and evolving software. This makes it from an implementation viewpoint a very do-able project.

What seems to be hindering the start of such a project is the impression that Facebook is too large to challenge. That is the impetus for this post. Facebook is certainly large and it does have an installed user base that gives it tremendous leverage. That allows it to do many things. Including its current attempt to "monetize" all that user information.

However, the one thing it doesn't allow it to do is anger and drive away its users. Users on the internet are actually quite fickle. Facebook is not the first site to have an overwhelmingly large user base. In fact, it wasn't that long ago that Google was considered to be irreplacably the core of the internet. More similar to Facebook is MySpace which saw a huge following erode very quickly. Going back further, there was a time when "everybody" had an AOL account. Prior to that, there was CompuServe. I don't need a show of hands to see how few of you even remember those two.

The history of the internet tells us one thing: Something new will eventually replace whatever we consider to be key today. It is not a question of "if" it is a question of "when". The internet game of "King of the Hill" is just like the child's version. No one stays on top forever. Therefore, don't be intimidated by the number of users Facebook has. That's just a potential market to be tapped by something better maybe even just something fresher.

Now, I can't promise that an open source version of Facebook will be an instant success. More importantly, I can't promise you that you will get rich building it. In fact, if you want to truly tap the ope source community, you should put those dreams aside.

However, I am willing to assert that if you build a set of open protocols that allow different providers to create mini-Facebooks and link them together, you will gain traction, just like the web did years ago, by allowing sites to put up pages that referred to each other via URLs. A grass roots project is possible. Some people will even find ways to put very innovative services on that scaffolding, and some of them will make significant money.

The one thing you need to do if you want to replace Facebook with an "Open Book" that respects peoples privacy is to actually build something. That is the key thing. As is often said, actions speak louder than words. Real software will trump vaporware. If you create something interesting, you will find people to collaborate with. Trust me. I've been there. It happens.

In fact, if you are serious about it, you might want to join diaspora. or look into really simple social networking at hedgie or boonex from Australia These look like groups committed to building an open source Facebook replacement. I wouldn't be surprised if there weren't others. (That's the down side of open source development, it often produces a lot of starts that never take off before building something that is good enough to have a cohesive faction that supports it.)

And on that note, you will have to excuse me, I have some software that I need to write.

DISCLAIMER: Although, I tweet and blog under the name @intel_chris and do so to promote Intel's products. These ideas are solely mine. Moreover, nothing written above should be considered a commitment by Intel (or me) to build, fund, or support building any specific project, nor to buy or use any such product or service should it get built.