Everybody gets so much information all day long
that they lose their common sense.
~ Gertrude Stein
One last round up of recent headlines, ledes, blog posts and soundbites from around the internet on FaceBook… So many people – and influential websites – have jumped on the FaceBook is evil / where’s my privacy bandwagon now that I feel continuing to post collections of links and blurbs on the topic is unnecessary.
The blurbs and links are below the fold, but first I’d like to throw out some thoughts I’ve been having about a possible alternative to FaceBook, in very sketchy form…
Or perhaps “OpenBook” – an “open source” FaceBook-like social media application, developed under an open source / GPL license and released for general use. Anyone who wants to set up their own special interest – or even general – social media site can download the application, run it on their own server and invite people to join. I can see it replacing a lot of the forum and bulletin board sites around now. For example, a high school or university might set up an OpenFace site for the staff, students, faculty and community/parents, or a group of Doctor Who fans might create a site focusing on bringing fans together. Much in the way that Wikipedia has spawned a legion of small, specialized wikis (for schools, on Doctor Who, etc.)
And much like Wikipedia there would also be a major, general purpose site, “OpenFace” itself, designed to be a social network for everyone. To be, in short, what FaceBook is, an alternative to FaceBook.
But with some key differences. More emphasis on communication tools for individuals and groups. Less emphasis on structures for businesses and organizations. Specific functionality built-in to facilitate use by activist groups, non-profits, and the like. As with FaceBook, the core would be: profiles, microblogging, the construction of groups and networks, and person-to-person messaging. Other functionality – photo albums, chat, etc. – could be added in later.
Key would be the structures of ownership and accountability. The main “OpenFace” site would need to be run by a non-profit board with accountability to users.
All material produced by users as part of their accounts – their profiles, posts, comments, likes and dislikes – would be owned by them and “published” under some sort of Creative Commons license, which would allow its use in the various streams on OpenFace, and some third-party connections and applications, but prohibit reuse for commercial purposes. (Prohibit something like what happened with IMBd and Gracenote, where free user contributions formed the basis for private businesses with no profits to those original users/creators.) Users would also have the ability to expunge all their data at any time.
Bandwidth and storage are cheap. Not free, but cheap and getting cheaper all the time. The open source community represents a very large collection of terrific talent and generosity that is easily capable of developing an application like “OpenFace.” Developing and implementing something like OpenFace would not seem to be an impossible challenge.
The operating costs could be cobbled together perhaps in the ways that WikiPedia’s are. I can also see some sort of advertising being an acceptable compromise – probably not targeted or contextual advertising, which has some privacy issues. But general ads, and with some sort of payment scheme for ad free accounts, and with a long term goal of funding that would remove the need for ads.
Another aspect of “OpenFace” would probably need to be migration tools, that would allow users to transfer data from other systems – such as FaceBook, LinkedIn and Google – to OpenFace, but again that seems fairly trivial. And perhaps also tools that would allow linkages with FaceBook during a transition period, republishing items from OpenFace to FaceBook accounts – allowing users switching to OpenFace to maintain contact with their FaceBooks friends. Though I would imagine FaceBook might object to that.
Along the same lines, a current key trend in social media is aggregation sites – sites that pull together streams from, eg, Twitter, FaceBook, LinkedIn, etc., with your email accounts and other more private sources. OpenFace could build aggregation tools in from the beginning, making it both more powerful and more appealing. Particularly given its robust privacy tools and commitments.
Initially, OpenFace would attract a small but interesting group of users. People put off by FaceBook’s hegemonic aims or its disrespect for privacy. People who are committed to notions of open source and “information wants to be free.” It would be a self-selected crowd with a particular social streak – a target “audience” that would appeal to groups that are now active on FaceBook – non-profits like Medicin Sans Frontier and Planned Parenthood, companies like Demotix, and media outlets like AlterNet.
As more and more users and businesses joined OpenFace, it would develop momentum, in the same way that FaceBook has, and start attracting a general crowd.
At which point the issue of commercial enterprises would have to be considered. Consider Peet’s Coffee. I like Peet’s Coffee. I have been a loyal and enthusiastic Peet’s customer since the original Peet’s opened in Berkeley. But on FaceBook, being a friend of Peet’s simply means getting ads from them inserted into my stream. Do I need or want that?
Obviously, users on OpenFace would have the ability to opt in to such things, or opt out, as they do on FaceBook (or did; today all sorts of ads started popping up on my FaceBook home, reflecting all the books, movies and music I had listed in my profile: I didn’t sign up for that, and spent some time culling most of the obviously “monetizable” entries from my bio). But even so, would we really want to allow blatant advertising equal time in our streams?
Maybe there could be rules restricting the kind of content companies and groups could post in people’s streams. For instance, GreenPeace could post about an issue having to do with whaling, but couldn’t post an ad for its new calendar. I can see how that would be hard to work out, but not impossible.
It might mean that initially most purely commercial enterprises – like Peet’s – wouldn’t be interested in having a presence on OpenFace. But once the user base was large enough, they might feel compelled to join. And that might provide part of the funding picture. In the same way that Craigslist only charges fees for a limited number of uses – posting job and sex ads – OpenFace might require fees from, say, all commercial, for-profit entities, with a fee scale of some sort so that a local bookstore, corner coffee house or neighborhood restaurant would pay little or nothing, whereas Starbucks, Borders and Chevron would have to pay a very great deal indeed.
I want to stress again that these are very preliminary thoughts – but maybe they will help to get a conversation going about what sort of society we want to see evolving on the internet. And whether it will be a genuine “public sphere” in bits and bytes, an online agora, or something more like chatting in the food court at the mall, under the surveillance cams.
Now, on to the links and blurbs…