Arjen Vrielink and I write a monthly series titled: Parallax. We both agree on a title for the post and on some other arbitrary restrictions to induce our creative process. Some people would consider Facebook a threat to the open Internet (e.g. Tim Berners-Lee), whereas other people see it as a key tool for promoting democracy in this world (e.g. Wael Ghonim). We decided to each argue both sides of the argument (300 words “for” and 300 words “against”) and then poll our readers to see which argument they find more persuasive. You can read Arjen’s post with the same title here.
Facebook or no Facebook?
For a couple of months now my pragmatic side has been battling with my principled conscience. The matter of contention: whether to keep my Facebook account.
Why I will delete my Facebook account
There are three main problems with Facebook:
It creates a silo-ed version of the web . A big reason why the web works is the way you can link to other pages on the web: you don’t need anybody’s permission. The Berners-Lee video that I linked to earlier gives some great arguments about why this is important. Facebook is a closed silo from this perspective, creating an alternative network that does not have the same characteristics as the Internet. For some young people around me, the web (if not computing) is nearly synonymous with Facebook: they hardly leave the Facebook browser tab. If they do, it is usually to buy something. I am sure that soon you will be able to do that from Facebook too (e.g. Did you know that you can get somebody a Amazon gift certificate to be given to them on their Facebook wall on their birthday which they have registered with Facebook?)
The social graph is too important to be under the governance of a single commercial US-based company . Knowing how you are connected to other people can lead to powerful applications (see below). In fact, the social experiences that this allows are so important that we would be crazy to accept that all this relational data is in the hands of a company that can do with it whatever they want and might even be forced to share this data with the US government. There is no easy way to migrate this social graph into another system and Facebook displays a very proprietary attitude to it. What would happen if Facebook was forced to stop doing business or would decide to start charging people for their services?
Their sphere of influence is not transparent and ever-increasing . Facebook is all over the web now. What news site does not have a “Like” button? If you have a Facebook account and you don’t log out after you have used it, then Facebook is able to see the URLs of the pages you are reading, even if you don’t ever click on the like button. Your attention is mined and commercialized by Facebook. Even if you have very restrictive privacy settings your data will be still be given to any third party app that has managed to seduce one of your many Facebook friends. More and more sites are cropping up that will only allow you to log in using the Facebook login mechanism making it harder to use multiple identities the net. Facebook is becoming so pervasive on the net, that it requires tools like Disconnect or Abine’s TACO to make sure you are staying out of their clutches. Does this feel like a positive development in the way that you can use the web?
Why I will not delete my Facebook account
There are a couple of good reasons for me to keep a Facebook account:
They are past the tipping point . The network effect has come into play. Why should you be on Facebook? Because it is the one and only (global) place where everybody else is! Two years ago I organized a reunion of the very first class I mentored as a teacher. It took weeks of searching using all kinds of media before we got about 50% of the class together. This year we are doing another reunion: within a week we found 95% of the class on Facebook. Facebook facilitates this so-called ambient intimacy with people that you don’t regularly see or talk to, but still want to stay in touch with. What other means of communications has transaction costs that are this low?
They deliver an incredibly innovative service. Facebook deserves a lot of credit for the ideas that they have implemented and for the pace at which they keep innovating their mind-blowingly large scale service. They were the first company that decided to create a web platform for which third parties could write applications, they were the first to see and deliver on the true power of the social graph (turning it inside-out) and they have been creative in the way that they appropriate and add to ideas about activity streams, sharing in groups and even privacy controls (what other web service gives you that level of control over what you want to share?). For somebody like me, fascinated if not captivated by technology and looking through an innovation lens, there is an immense amount over ever-changing functionality to explore.
Having a centralized social graph leads to powerful applications. The first time I realized this was when I played Bejeweled on my iPhone. It allowed me to connect to my Facebook account and suddenly I wasn’t playing against other people at Internet scale (how can anyone score 20.000 points?!), but I was engaged in battles with family, friends and colleagues. Soon there will be a time where every piece of content we consume (books, news, magazines, videos, podcast) will be enriched by this meta-layer of your friends opinions. I call this the social contextualization of content. Facebook’s integration with Pandora was one of the first examples of how this will work. This meta-layer assumes a persistent social graph: you don’t want to keep finding your different groups of relations again and again do you?
Anyway, for me it is clear: I don’t want to be a part of Facebook’s success and would prefer it if we all would be using a differently architected solution in the near future. Fully decentralized and distributed systems are in the making everywhere (e.g. Diaspora, Pagekite, StatusNet, Unhosted and Buddycloud) and I will invest some time to explore those further. As I also personally get very little value out of Facebook, it is not hard to act principled in this case: I will be deleting my account.
Update on 10-11-2012: As I still don’t have a Facebook account I’ve deciced to change the title of this post.