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