Siliconcowboy's Blog

Technology, journalism, social media and social responsibility

Facebook Alternatives: Open, Free, Public, Private, Or Just Sweeter?

There’s been a lot of discussion in this blog and elsewhere about the social media platform Facebook and its history of intrusion on user privacy.

Some, such as Mashable’s Ben Parr, suggest that although Facebook made some mistakes in designing and explaining its privacy policy, fundamentally privacy is a choice that users must make.

While philosophically that idea holds, in fact Facebook took that choice away from its users with its continual revision and complication of the privacy policy, juxtaposed by its expansion into the web itself. The service is simply much bigger and more powerful than it was when we started.

Many pundits, including Ryan Singel of Wired, have suggested that we need an open alternative to Facebook. And indeed, some projects are already well under way that generally fall under the category of “open” alternatives to Facebook.

But what does that mean, really? In this analysis, I’d like to suggest that “open” means something quite different from what the user community really wants.

Engineers are sticklers for semantics. A term that is common to the engineering world may work its way into common parlance, but by the time it gets there, it often means something entirely different than what the engineering world conceives it to be. For instance, even the word semantics has a clear and concise meaning to web engineers.

That’s not to say that every engineer sees the same term from the same angle.  What a software designer means by “open”, for example, is quite different from what hardware designers use the term to mean.  And it’s often vastly different from what tech marketers understand the word to mean. Still, these worlds are converging, and more importantly, they are converging on us. The user community has now entered the dialog with respect to systems design, and so users need to be as informed as the engineering community.

Still, these worlds are converging, and more importantly, they are converging on us. The user community has now entered the dialog…so users need to be as informed as the engineering community.

So, when someone suggests that an alternative to Facebook should be “open,” what exactly does that mean?

On Sunday, Mashable posted a video interview with Richard Stallman, a pioneer of open software systems. In the video, which is one of four that Mashable says it will post, Stallman posits that an open, free software system must adhere to four conditions:

  1. The software should be freely accessible.
  2. The software should be free to modify.
  3. The software should be free to share with others.
  4. The software should be free to change and redistribute copies of the changed software.

Of course, such a free system is anything but private. In fact a free system of this design is anethema to any system that promotes privacy or is marketed as promoting privacy.  Which is exactly what Stallman would want.  (Keep in mind that it was Stallman who trashed the first-ever dot-com company,, by copying its proprietary code, re-writing it and distributing it to competitors in order to ensure that the MIT Artificial Intelligence lab had free code).

Interestingly, Robert Scoble of Scobleizer posits a different solution, splitting Facebook into two entities, one public and one private, in this Open Letter to Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg.  Scoble’s solution seems to be mostly a PR fix, with an added level of difficulty in that doubles the user’s level of confusion regarding choices and privacy settings.  To me, this is simply untenable and somewhat surprising coming from Scoble.

One of the best solutions I have seen comes from Neicole Crepeau of Coherent Social Media, called “The Holes in Facebook’s Strategy and How to Plug Them.”  In this article, Neicole lists several solutions to the problem, which she rightly frames in her opening paragraph:

I hate seeing a company make mistakes that a little good technology could solve. Especially a company as big and tech-saavy as Facebook. It’s a shame to see Mark Zuckerberg blowing holes in his customers trust and confidence in order to meet his business goals. Especially since, with some technical effort, he could hit the sweet spot, where business and user goals align, and satisfy everyone.

Her first solution is the most powerful: leverage “Lists” for a better user experience. Right now, it’s hard to even find your lists, let alone use them to decide who gets to see what information you want to share. But with a more intelligent list option, users could exert far more control over what they share and with whom. It’s an elegant solution compared to the morass of fixes described above.

Her second solution is to “leverage the ad network that already exists” on Facebook. In this case, what she is suggesting is a more intelligent approach to delivering ads to individual users.  Today, Facebook is simply delivering content that you have “Liked” or that is closely relevant to your profile. But with a more intelligent approach, Facebook could deliver ads that are not only relevant, but timely as well.

“Ad networks like Facebook are all about delivering relevant ads to you,” writes Neicole. “Facebook uses all the information it gathers about you in order to serve you the best ad–the one you’re most likely to click on. Let’s say that I’ve put in my profile that I like hiking and biking. I’ve put my location as Seattle. I’ve fanned Outdoor Magazine, the local biking club, and Gregg’s Cycles.

“When I post a link to an article on the latest, coolest mountain bike, chances are Facebook is going to serve me an ad about that or other mountain bikes, and likely from local bike stores. Hmmm, technology that serves me the most relevant ad-content based on my actions, likes, and so on. Gee, couldn’t you use that same technology to filter the posts from all the businesses I’ve fanned, to show me just the most relevant ones today? For example, if Outdoor Magazine posted five items today, just show me the one about mountain biking. If Gregg’s Cycles has posted six times, just show me the one about discounts on bikes this weekend.”

She adds that, while this means businesses won’t have full access to our feeds, it also means that we see the most relevant items they’ve posted–without any effort on their part.

Again, an elegant fix that also delivers real value to the user in exchange for better insight into who the user is and what he or she wants out of Facebook.

And this goes to the fundamental difficulty most people have with Facebook. As Neicole puts it:

“Mark Zuckerberg, if you want people to share more on Facebook, pay attention to the nature of their relationships and serve their sharing needs. Make it easy, obvious, and effortless to share different pieces of information and content with different circles of people. If you do that, people will share MORE!”

P.S.: The Computers, Freedom, and Privacy Convention on June 15-18 will be discussing Facebook privacy, be there!


One comment on “Facebook Alternatives: Open, Free, Public, Private, Or Just Sweeter?

  1. Pingback: Facebook to Change its Ways? « Siliconcowboy's Blog

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