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.

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