Tag Archives: diaspora

A Tale Of Two (Or Three) Facebook Challengers

Screen Shot 2014-09-26 at 8.20.31 PMFor a website that hosts so many cute pet videos, Facebook is not a place that reeks of happiness and sincerity. It’s populated by a good chunk of the world, and it’s filled with a lot of meaningful moments captured in text, camera and video by people who know that, more and more every day, this is where you can share these moments with a broad segment of your friends and family. And that’s the entire hook of Facebook — it’s where everybgoogleplusody is.  The feature set is not the hook, because Google Plus and a variety of other platforms offer similar feature sets. And many of those competitors, including Google’s offering, are more sensitive to the privacy concerns of their users and less invasive about how they share your data with advertisers.

Many of my professional acquaintances are on both Facebook and Google Plus. But they comprise only about a third of my Facebook friends. So I check Facebook most every day.  I go to Google Plus on rare occasion.

Facebook has a well-known history of overstepping.  From the numerous poorly thought out schemes to court advertisers by letting them tell the world what lingerie we’re buying to use our photos in sidebar advertising, to the constant updating of security settings that seems to always result in less security, it’s clear to most of us that Facebook is trying to please it’s advertisers primarily, and we are more the commodity that they broker than the clientele that they serve.

A few years ago, some people who valued Facebook but were fed up with these concerns developed Diaspora, the anti-Facebook — a network that is built on open source software; distributed, and highly respectful of our right to own and control our content. Diaspora does this by storing the data in “podEllos“, which are individual data stores hosted by users.  You can join a friend or neighbor’s pod, or start your own.  The pods, which work a lot like peer-to-peer apps like BitTorrent, communicate with each other, but the people who run Diaspora do not control that data.  You can blow away your Pod from your file manager or command line if you care to, and nobody is going to stop you. If these networks were fictional, Facebook would have been created by Andy Warhol and Diaspora by Ursula LeGuin.

And this week’s big news is Ello, which, like Diaspora, has defined itself in relationship to Facebook as the user-focused alternative.  Ello is, at present, a rough beta network that shows glimmers of elegance.  Their manifesto is poetry to BoingBoing readers like me:

“Your social network is owned by advertisers.

Every post you share, every friend you make, and every link you follow is tracked, recorded, and converted into data. Advertisers buy your data so they can show you more ads. You are the product that’s bought and sold.

We believe there is a better way. We believe in audacity. We believe in beauty, simplicity, and transparency. We believe that the people who make things and the people who use them should be in partnership.

We believe a social network can be a tool for empowerment. Not a tool to deceive, coerce, and manipulate — but a place to connect, create, and celebrate life.

You are not a product.”

But let’s be clear about Ello. It’s centralized, like Facebook; not distributed, like Diaspora.  It was built with about half a mil of venture capital funding. It will need to make money at some point in order to return on that investment.  As we watch Twitter get more and more commercialized, we know that this is a story just waiting to happen.

So, what am I saying?  That we should skip Ello and proceed to Diaspora?  Sadly, no.  While Diaspora has the model that I believe is viable to sustain a non-commercial, user-focused network, Grandma isn’t going to host her own server pod.  Peer-to-peer technology is not ready for prime time yet.  So I don’t see a Facebook killer here, or there, or anywhere in sight.  I see people who understand that the crass pimping of our personal lives that Mark Zuckerberg calls a business model is problematic and worthy of replacing.  We can’t replace it with something too geeky for the masses, nor can we replace it with a clone that kinda hopes that it will have a better business model (but likely will only have a less abrasive version, much like Google Plus).

I have a lot of high hopes lately.

I hope that we can curtail this trend of training our local police to be paramilitary units and champion nationwide community policing, as a community controls and reduces crime, while a military goes to war.

I hope that we can reverse the damage that was done when TV News programs became subject to Neilsen ratings.  I consider that to have been a dark day for our society. It was the hard turn that steered us to a place where news is available for whatever biased lens that you want to view it through.

And I hope that somebody will develop a Facebook competitor with a viable business model and a compelling feature set that will yank all of my friends and family out of their complacent acceptance of Facebook’s trade-offs. In this digital era, this is insanely important. We commune online; we share our most treasured moments. We sway each other’s attitudes on important matters.  The platform has to be agnostic, and it has to be devoted to our goals, not those of a third party, such as advertisers.  We have enough problems with societal institutions that have a stated purpose, but answer to people with different aims.

These are all realistic dreams.  But they seem pretty far away.

How Google Can Kick Facebook’s Butt

This article was first published on the Idealware Blog in May of 2010.

infrastructures.png

(XKCD Cartoon by Randall Munroe)

Facebook really annoyed a lot of people with their recent, heavy-handed moves.  You can read about this all over the place, here are some good links about what they’ve done, what you should do and why it bothers some of us:

Facebook’s Announcement (from their Blog)

Understanding the Open Graph from Chris Messina

Mark Zuckerberg’s claim that internet privacy is “over” from Marshall Kirkpatrick at ReadWriteWeb

Three Ways Facebook Will Dramatically Change Your Nonprofit (from John Hayden)

Why I Don’t “Like” Facebook and Void Rage: Unable To Muster Facebook Anger from Techcafeteria

Why You Shouldn’t Delete Your Facebook Account by Janet Fouts

Facebook and “Radical Transparency” (A Rant) by Danah Boyd

Long story short, though, Facebook wants us all to open up, and they want the web to be a place where you do things and report back to Facebook about them.  My take on this is that Im in favor of an open web that offers a rich, social experience with lots of referred information.  I don’t consider Facebook an acceptable platform or steward of that function.

Why Google?

As my colleague Johanna pointed out, there’s already an effort underway to develop a purely open alternative to Facebook. The Diaspora project has received significant funding and seems to be run by some very thoughtful, intelligent people.  But I look at this as a kind of David and Goliath proposition, with the rider that this Goliath won’t even blink if David hurls a rock at him.  If someone is going to displace Facebook, it’s not likely going to be a tiny startup with a couple of $100k.  It’s going to be Google.

You might ask me, isn;t this just trading one corporate overseer for another? And the answer is yes.  But Google’s guiding principle is “Don’t be Evil“. Facebook’s, apparently, is “milk your users for every penny their personal data can net you“.  If someone’s going to capitalize on my interactions with friends, family and the world, I’d rather it be the corporation that has demonstrated some ethics in their business decisions to the one that has almost blatantly said that they don’t care about their users.

Supplementing Buzz

So, how can Google play Indiana Jones to the rolling boulder that is Facebook? Not by just pushing Buzz.  I’ll get to Buzz in a minute, because I’m a fanboy of the platform.  But Buzz alone isn’t a Facebook killer, and Google won’t have a foothold unless they take a couple of their afterthought properties and push them front and center.

Big Google Product: GMail. Afterthought that supports it: Contacts.

Google needs to do some heavy re-imagining of their contact management app if they want to gain a foothold against Facebook. Facebook’s contact management is simple and elegant; Google’s looks like a web app that I might have developed.  They need to get some of the good UI people lurking among the geeks to do an overhaul, stat, adding features like social media site integration (ala Rapportive or Gist) and more ajaxy, seamless ways to create and manage people and groups.

Big Google Product: Buzz. Afterthought that supports it: Google Profiles.

Social networking is all about the profile; why doesn’t Google get that?  Buzz isn’t the home page; the profile is, and what Google has provided for us is cute, simplistic, and far too limited to meet our needs.  But the customization options for the current profile are limited, and the whole thing just feels lazy on Google’s part, as if they spent a half hour designing it and then dumped it on us.

Why Buzz Rocks

I’ve written about Buzz before; more to this point on my other blog.  Google Buzz supports about 90% of the basic features of a full-fledged blogging platform like WordPress or Blogger:

  • I can write a post with images.
  • Commenting, with some commenting moderation, is in place.
  • You can subscribe to my Buzz feed as an individual RSS feed, or just visit it on my profile.
  • But, unlike this blog, my Buzz posts are also subscribable in the Buzz news feed interface, like Twitter or Facebook, making it all the richer in terms of how people can reply and interact.  That’s pretty powerful.
  • Buzz supports groups (via Contacts) and private posts.
  • Google just announced (like, yesterday) an API that will allow people to develop apps that interact with and run on the Buzz platform.
  • And, of course, Buzz integrates right into my email, keeping it front and center, and convenient.

Tying It All Together

Google could make this a powerful alternative to Facebook by doing a few simple things:

  • Almost everyone I know who gave Buzz a try instantly ported in their Twitter feed and then forgot about it, leaving those of us who like Buzz left to sift through all of that stuff that, hey, we’ve already read, because we haven’t left Twitter. So, Google should lose the universal feed feature. Keep it about the value of the conversation, not the volume level.
  • But keep the Google Reader integration, along with link, picture and video posts.  A good blog comments on other web content, not other web feeds, and the integration of Google Reader as a content source works.  One reason it works is because you can post the Google Reader items with comments.
  • Make the profile page more configurable and dynamic, allowing users to add tabs and link them to RSS sources, much the way we add content to the sidebars of our blogs.  This is how my twitter feed should be integrated, not interspersed with my Buzz posts.
  • Make Contacts a tab on the profile page.
  • Add theming to the profile page.  Emulate the Blogger theming options.
  • I own a domain with my name on it, and I would point that domain to my profile page and make Buzz my blog if I had the ability to make that profile a page that I could call my own.

Conclusion

As much as I’d appreciate an open web, not a corporate owned one, I’m just not idealistic enough to believe that it’s still a possibility. If i have a choice of corporate overlords, I want the one that open sources most of their software; maintains high ethical standards for how their ads are displayed; has a track record of corporate philanthropy; and is relatively respectful of the fact that my friends and information belongs to me. That’s not Facebook. Please do weigh in on whether I’m too cynical or too trusting of the alternative, because this is an important topic. The future of the web depends on who we trust to steward our interactions.