Personal web pages started for the most part at universities, because students and profs all had accounts, so why not? Then the internet opened up to mortals, and a lot of them put up web sites, though often on their own dime. Then along came Geocities, which provided free hosting for people’s web sites. And a lot of people took advantage of that, but nowhere near the number of people who have Facebook accounts.
Facebook has taught us some lessons about what people want on the web. Geocities provided a space, but there was nothing in it. It had to be filled with content from the account owner transferred via something called FTP — waaay too much work for a lot of people, and scary too. I mean “FTP” sounds like something out of a barely remembered science class. There might also have been an uncomfortable implication that you ought to have something worthwhile to say before going to all that trouble.
With Facebook, on the other hand, the content practically generates itself! Just hit a lot of “Like” and “Share” buttons and you don’t really need to write anything. Or if you do feel like broadcasting yourself, just type whatever you like into a form, and it’s as easy as that! And so safe as well for those who don’t want their info exposed to the whole world, but only to a select group of one or two or three or four hundred “friends.”
Facebook’s Achilles’ heel, though, may turn out to be privacy. Matt McKeon has created a wonderful chart which allows one to track, year-by-year, the erosion in Facebook’s default privacy settings. Over at Wired, Ryan Singel provides some insight into the current situation.
So is there an alternative for those concerned by Facebook’s emerging business model — namely, selling its user’s identities? Could any private entity be trusted not to do exactly the same?
The answer may be to take a fresh look at the web, with the lessons of Facebook in mind. Facebook does nothing unique, and it doesn’t do any particular thing particularly well. What it does primarily is aggregate a number of things which can already be done, and facilitate sharing of information between users (and increasingly anyone else they feel like sharing user info with).
What if these various functions could be distributed following much the same sort of model as the internet? Let’s take a simple example, like your email address. There isn’t a central server which holds all info about email addresses, but rather a system which allows your computer to fire off an email which goes to another computer which does a lookup and sends the info on towards its destination. Yes, it’s all quite technical, but, as a user, you don’t need to know any of the technicalities in order to send email, and no single entity or organization needs to manage all the email addresses in the world so that everyone can communicate with one another.
An open, distributed system wouldn’t be enough on its own for a lot of people, just as Geocities’ free empty space you could FTP to wasn’t appealing to a lot of people. But it would allow others to set up their own “Facebooks,” and every one of them would be interoperable with every other. If friend Alice posted something on her “wall” in her account with the Super Social Networking A-go-go site, friend Benny would see it in his account with Awesome Social Networking Divas site. And accounts would be transferable between sites, just like any real internet type account is today.
It’s difficult to say when or even if this will come to pass, but I’ve yet to hear a Facebook user who was entirely pleased with the service, especially on the issue of privacy. Give users a site with all the functionality of Facebook, better designed, as easy or easier to use, with total control over access to their information, and they might just go for it. Make it a distributed technology, and you’d do away with the need for a single entity to acquire a critical mass of users — any individual, group, ISP, etc. could set up their little corner, which would be interoperable with everyone else’s little corner, with all those little corners adding up to a global community of users.
In other words: watch out, Facebook.