Facebook’s relentless drive away from privacy has garnered a lot of attention lately. For those of us who have been working towards building decentralised networks for some time now, the attention heaped upon Diaspora comes as no surprise. They’ve done a fantastic job raising the need for open alternatives to Facebook.
Matt Asay’s post yesterday, Facebook has problems, Diaspora isn’t one of them, argues that being free and open isn’t enough. The end-user experience of social networks is what matters, he says. Because a great user experience isn’t at Diaspora’s heart, it’s doomed to fail. His argument is persuasive and, as anyone who’s ever built a user-facing application knows, it’s absolutely correct.
Here’s the thing: while Diaspora’s aim is freedom, that doesn’t mean that open alternatives to Facebook are all prioritising the same thing. The biggest challenge that Facebook is facing, above privacy, above the threat of falling out of fashion, above up-and-coming competition from Twitter or Foursquare or that-social-network-you’ve-never-heard-of, is this:
Facebook is building a Boat-Car.
Boat-cars seem seem like a pretty awesome idea, but the fundamental challenge of combining a sealed hull with external wheels means that boat-cars will never be able to match the performance or aesthetics of cars or boats. Pursuing the entire social market, Facebook has attempted to adapt itself to every new feature of the social web. They started out as a Friendster-alike that emphasised intentional communities, and did it well, providing elegant social utilities to university students. But since then, they’ve systematically bolted on features in an attempt to build a vehicle that does everything that Flickr, Twitter, Foursquare, Email and IM do, to name a few examples. Increasingly, they’re trying to become a framework for the web in general so that everything a web user does is done through Facebook. Instead of offering a carefully constructed vehicle that offers amazing social experiences, they have a created a clumsy boat-car that can never truly compete with more focused sites.
What Facebook does have, fundamentally, is the social graph. Where Flickr has a careful treatment of photo sharing, Facebook has photo sharing built on an expansive substrate of communities. Where Twitter has an insane ability to capture and amplify the low-level hum of human communication, Facebook has an insane ability to execute at scale unlike anyone since Google. Where Google has an intimate understanding of the flows of data on the web, Facebook has an intimate understanding of how to keep their users engaged. Most importantly, Facebook has hundreds of millions of users, and the network effects are in full force.
While no one will ever be able to overcome Facebook’s advantage on Facebook’s terms, just as no one was able to defeat Microsoft on Microsoft’s terms, it’s downright easy to create better social experiences than Facebook’s. It’s easy to create better tools than Facebook’s. It’s also easy to imagine a better social environment than theirs. Logging into Facebook is for me like walking into a room where everyone I’ve ever met is standing around, talking to each-other. My bosses, my family, friends old and new, co-workers, acquaintances, everyone! It’s like attending a nightmare wedding in hell.
The challenge isn’t social network portability; I regularly fly all the way around the world just to reconfigure my social network and have different conversations than the ones I normally have. I’ll gladly log into a different site if it means I can see just work-related conversations, or just family photos. The challenge is that the only viable place for those activities today is Facebook. Their network effects are of so much larger a magnitude than anyone else’s that creating a new social site without leveraging Facebook’s network is a downright crazy idea. Therein lies Facebook’s weakness, and the weakness of every dominant but “closed” network.
This is where open, decentralised alternatives come in. Instead of relying on Facebook’s social graph, social web tools can be built on top of the one true social network: everyone. Instead of building boat-cars — ugly tools that try to do too much — developers could focus on building the best photo sharing site in the world, or the best recipe sharing site, or the best book sharing site. In this world, if someone wants to come along and compete, they do so on features and execution, without first having to steal away all the users from the site that got there first. We’d end up with better experiences and tools instead of just dominant ones.
Facebook’s tools might be the very best for right now, but it’s frankly ridiculous to think that Facebook will be able to provide either the tools or even the infrastructure for the next five or ten or twenty years of development of the web. The job of serious web developers today is to ignore the siren call of Facebook, Twitter, Apple, Adobe, or any other comers that would define the parameters of the web for them, and instead build the best experiences possible. If you protest, and say that Facebook allows you to connect your users with each-other more easily than any alternative, ask yourself if Facebook’s interface is the best you can imagine, or if you feel closely connected to your network on Facebook (or Twitter, or any “platform” provider), or if your network on Facebook represents all of your social interactions. If the answer isn’t emphatically YES!, then it’s worth your while to consider the alternatives.
Hell, if you work at Facebook and you can’t emphatically answer yes to those questions, then it’s worth your while to consider the alternatives. After all, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. And trust me, you can’t beat the web, because in the long term, the web isn’t subject to anti-trust suits, doesn’t have financial constraints, and can keep evolving until something works.