Mirror: First steps to weaken Facebook and take back the web

This is a mirror of my post originally published on my blog, but now unavailable there because of traffic from Hacker News.🙂 Enjoy:

To use  federation to fight and win over Facebook is possible. But it will take time. Here are two ideas for how to start strengthening the open web right now.

What is the allure of Facebook? Why is everyone using it (including me), even though it’s clearly bad for our online freedom and privacy (read: bad for the world)? There are a ton of features which makes Facebook almost impossible to escape, like

  • «Everyone» is there, making it easy to keep in touch with old and new friends
  • There’s a group for anything
  • It’s dead simple to create new groups, making it ideal for collaboration
  • A simple chat function lets you see if someone is online and start talking with them right away, straight from the tab in your browser that you already have open
  • Get all the latest news from your favorite blogs, web comics and everything else in one place by the click of a «Like»-button.

And all of this is available anywhere, not just where you have your chat client etc.

These are some of the functionalities we need to replicate if we want people to move away from Facebook. In many ways Facebook are what the internet should’ve been from the very beginning. You should’ve always been able to start collaborating with anyone; friend, acquaintance or anonymous unknown person. You should’ve always been able to tell people you meet to add you online to keep in touch. In a way you always have, but Facebook made it all so much simpler. But they didn’t just make it simpler, they locked it up, data mined it and let NSA in to look around too. That’s why it’s high time the open meadow of the internet takes these features back from the walled garden of Facebook.

The recent revelations about NSA and GCHQ spying and the fact that Facebook don’t let you see everything shared by those you subscribe to («Like») unless they pay for you to see it should make it clearer than ever that change is desperately needed.

I think all of the above-mentioned features will some day be perfected by federated social networks. But while we wait, I have an idea for how to ween people off Facebook slowly by starting with two of the features mentioned: Chat and updates.

As I said: The free and open web has had these features long before Facebook existed. It’s called Jabber/XMPP (chat) and RSS and Atom feeds (updates). But it’s all just too much hassle. You have to know about it, register an account, choose between dozens of applications and web apps, etc. In the case of chat you’ve also had to get your friends to use the same protocol as you. That’s a lot of steps, but still it was quite popular. Until Facebook came along and made it all so much easier.

The challenge then is to make it at least as simple to use these features outside of Facebook as inside. Here’s how I think we can do it: By using the browser. I’m sure there are some extensions out there doing all this already. But that’s just not good enough. It needs to be built into the browser to make it easy and visible enough.

Chat

You know how when you start Thunderbird for the first time it asks you if you’d like to configure it to use an existing e-mail account, of if you’d like to register a new one? The browser should do the same, only with XMPP instead of e-mail. After this a small chat box will be displayed in the bottom right of your browser at all times. It will function just like Facebook’s chat box: Expand to show you your online friends when you click on it, and open new conversations in boxes to the left. It is important to find a way to get people to sign up for a Free/Open XMPP server, but since Facebook chat is based on XMPP you can get all your Facebook friends here too. This means that using this feature has great utility from the start, and that it will greatly reduce the need for many to have Facebook constantly open.

Skjermbilde av TalkillaMozilla is already working on something very similar to this, Mozilla Talkilla. It looks really nice, but so far it doesn’t let you use your existing XMPP account or help you set up a new one. It also only lets you add friends using your Google account. We need to find some solution to the problem «let people find their friends, no matter what service they are using». If not everyone will keep doing the easiest thing: Integrating their services with only Google, Facebook and a few other huge players, which means their monopolistic stranglehold will just keep growing. And that is the exact thing I want to fight with my proposal.

It seems to me that Mozilla’s Social API experimentations are exactly what I’m looking for, except that where it leads us is the exact opposite of the future I want. If I understand it correctly it will just help the walled gardens of Facebook and others to extend into your browser and get even more power over you. Instead we need to use these functionalities in a way that facilitates moving away from those walled gardens without losing out. I dearly hope that Mozilla will keep developing the Social API, but make it vendor independent and use it to liberate us instead of helping the walled gardens ensnare us even more.

Updates

Remember when you opened a new tab in your browser and there was nothing there? Opera understood that this was a waste of space and opportunity and introduced the now ubiquitous Speed Dial. They where on the right track, but missed the real opportunity. Opera has recently started exploiting the potential of this better with the new Discover feature. But even they are still not anywhere near using this «new tab» area as a replacement for the Facebook wall, which it obviously could be. How?

Well, Mozilla was already halfway there when they introduced live bookmarks years ago: Click a button and subscribe to the feed of the website you’re on straight from the browser, no external feed reader needed. Good idea, but terribly executed. Here’s how it works, which is, unfortunately, also a list of what’s wrong with it:

  • It was a tiny icon and no clue was given on how to use it. (Now it’s been dropped by default, but you can easily get it back)
  • Clicking it brings up a new, confusing page.
  • This page has an even more confusing drop down list of options.
  • Upon choosing Live Bookmarks you’re given a new, somewhat confusing choice of where to place it.
  • After this you have to find and click on your new Live Bookmark every time you want to know if it’s been updated.

In comparison, here’s how the same process works in Facebook:

  • Click the big button called «Like».
  • Get updates automatically delivered straight to your face. (But only some of them, unless the content creator pays Facebook)

See the difference? See why no one used Live Bookmarks while tons of people live their online lives within Facebook?

It needs to be just as simple in your browser: One click on a big «subscribe» button while you’re on your favorite site (which offers an RSS/Atom feed, meaning most sites) and you’re done. Then, when you open a new tab, the Speed Dial has been replaced with a Facebook Wall-esque display of all the latest updates from all sites you subscribe to. A picture plus the first paragraph or two of text from news sites and blogs, the image from the web comic, the video from the YouTube or Vimeo channel, etc.

Most podcatchers won’t just tell you to go out there and find the podcasts you’d like to subscribe to, but offers you a searchable directory of popular podcasts. The same way the browser should also present you with a directory of sites you might like to subscribe to. Of course this directory should be online, available to all browsers, and completely Free/Open, as to not just help the biggest blogs and news sites get even bigger while yet again excluding the smaller players. In these respects it should be a lot like the podcast directory at gpodder.net. But crucially: This directory should just be an addition to the subscribe button in the browser, not the only way to subscribe to feeds.

Set your phasers to cloudify

If you find these ideas intriguing, you might still be skeptical as to the probability of them making even the smallest of dents in Facebook’s stranglehold over online updates and IM. One reason might be the focus on the browser. How can I use this if I can’t have all my data everywhere?

The solution seems to be to make an online account that saves all of this info and makes it available to any browser where you’re logged in. Mozilla is already working on integrating your identity into your browser. Mozilla Persona is the beginning: An online account you can use to log in to other sites, like The Times Crossword, Sloblog or Born This Way Foundation. Why not have your Persona account also handle your subscription list and logs?

I am not proposing to give all the power from Facebook over to Mozilla and just change which company NSA contacts. It’s of crucial importance that none of this acts as a way to lock you into one specific browser vendor or company, and that your privacy is protected. Mozilla Persona is Free and Open Source all the way down, which is great, but not quite good enough. You need to be able to choose your own provider and switch from one (say Mozilla) to another (say Google or your own server) whenever you want. So Mozilla Persona should just be one of many options for your online account. In addition there could be Opera’s and Chrome’s sync features, ownCloud, FreedomBox, and many others. Hey, why not just have all the info in a .txt you can put anywhere, like Dropbox, SpiderOak, etc. Still all the info needs to be in one place at a time. Having your subscriptions behind one login and your chat logs behind another is one unnecessary hindrance too many.

But now we’re starting to tread into the geeky, complicated territory which allowed Facebook to come along with it’s simplicity and «take over the internet» in the first place.

In finding a solution to the cloud challenge of my suggestion we must tread lightly. How do we make it simple enough while preserving the choice, freedom and security we want? I’m not sure. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t start implementing the non-cloud features in the browsers right away. As I said: Mozilla and Opera has already done some of this. Now I hope they will do the rest, and get other browser vendors to join them. Or perhaps someone else will do it? I don’t care as long as it’s done and done in an Open way.

To summarize

Facebook is taking over the web and we need to save it. The issue is too complex to have one solution. The most obvious solution is federated social networks, but it’s also a very long term solution. We need more, sooner. One of these thousand small solutions should be to take back chat and subscriptions, by making them dead simple to use for everyone straight from the browser.

Let’s make the Free and Open web into what it is, and was supposed to be: The best place to keep updated and talk with your friends. Then let’s take it from there.

If you’ve read this far I’d very much appreciate a comment bellow. It also means that you’re quite interested in this topic, and so you should read my blogpost Think like the internet – Or how to fight Facebook and win. Thank you!

Mirror: Think Like the Internet – or How to Fight Facebook, and Win

This is a mirror of the post published over on my blog, here. Please go there to read it and comment if your firewall allows!🙂

The dominance of Facebook is a democratic problem. Our only hope is to use the same tactic the internet used to win against the networks of the time: Open up for collaboration between networks. This is done through federation. Here is how and why it will work, and how you can help.

At a recent conference in Norway, Clay Shirky was asked what he thinks of the domination of Facebook. His answer is discouraging. You can see it below, but in short he says that Facebook might now be so big that it’s impossible to challenge its dominance.

http://www.nrk.no/playout/v1.1/flashplayer.ashx?v=F498E5B6A1A07D56&w=500&rand=129647158154972957

Facebook has 800 million active users around the world. In some countries its grasp on the population is staggering. In the US, 41.6% of the population has an account. In Norway, 73% of the population uses Facebook every month, and young people spend 40% of their online time there. You can see why Clay has a negative outlook.

So, is the fight lost? Will Facebook rule for all foreseeable future?

Yes. It might do just that, if we don’t have a radical shift in our thinking. We need to start thinking like the internet. We can not follow the old pattern of one company replacing another (6 degrees -> Friendster -> Myspace -> Facebook) any more. Here I think Clay might be right.

What can replace Facebook then is not another social network, where all your friends have to agree to join the same new place, but something more akin to the internet itself: A network of social networks.

How is this done?

Through decentralization with federation. Federation means that two people with profiles on two different social networks can do all the things together that they would normally need to be on the same network to do: Follow, @reply/comment, self organize trough hashtags/groups, etc. Social networks using federation is called distributed social networks.

Take a look at this fantastic walk-through explaining what distributed/federated social networks are, how they work, and more, presented as an old school point-and-click game.

A system for federation, OStatus, is being built by StatusNet by bundling many already highly regarded Open protocols. This is in use today. If you have a microblog on Identi.ca or any server with the StatusNet software you can follow any Tumblr and Friendika account from there. In addition to any other account on any other StatusNet server. Google Buzz and Cliqset was also a part of this.

I install it on my server, you use Brainbird, our mutual friend use Identi.ca, but we can all communicate and collaborate just as easily as if we were all on Twitter.

The beautiful thing with this federation is that no deals have to be made, no contracts signed. One player doesn’t even have to know that the others exist. It is organic like the kind of spontaneous collaboration that happens online when people independent of one another starts labeling their photos with the same tag, which Clay himself talks about in his book Here comes everybody. Anyone is free to implement the OStatus protocols and get federated.

Why is it needed?

There will always be people who create new social networks to cater to a specific social or technical niche. But, as Clay says, these mom-and-pop companies stands no chance against the Facebook mall. With its groups and apps, Facebook can encompass the need of any niche, and be the general purpose store at the same time. The Facebook chat is not better than MSN, ICQ or Jabber, but because you can do everything on Facebook, and because of the network effect, it is still taking over.

The Network Effect

Why will it work?

Because of the same network effect that keeps everyone locked in to Facebook. Every extra node on a network makes the whole network exponentially more useful for all the existing nodes. Few nodes, that is if none of your friends are there, makes the network close to useless; no matter how innovative the technology or how great the Terms of Service.

Even though most new networks will be able to recruit at least a few people for all kinds of different reasons, they are more likely to lose those users after a while than to recruit more. Few users is, ironically, the main hindrances for getting more users. When new startups begin to see this dilemma, they will hopefully come to the realization that it is suicide to try to go the same route as Facebook and lock their users into a walled garden.

Federation means opening yourself up the scary possibility that those who want to talk to some of your users chooses to do so from another network, instead of joining yours. But it also goes the other way around. Getting one new person (node) to register is hard when you’re a small player and all the friends of this potential new user is on Facebook. But by federating your network it gains thousands of new nodes instantly, making your network endlessly more useful for all your users. In addition your users don’t have to convince all their friends that they should join your particular network, only that they should join one of the (hopefully soon) thousands of federated networks to choose from.

Every time a new network starts federating, the reward for joining the network of network grows bigger for the next player out, who will enjoy the benefits of the network effect without having to build the user base for it first. This will have a snowball effect.

Why will it work? Because it’s the only alternative.

Why is it better for everyone?

Facebook is a threat, but not because it is Facebook. If history repeats itself and another network replaces Facebook, nothing will be gained. It will grow as large or larger than its predecessor, just like before, and the democratic problem Clay warns about will be just as bad. The public space will be replaced by a commercial space, where public speech is allowed when the company deems it advantageous for them.

But with a federated network of networks the opposite will be the case. Is the network you chose for spreading your message censoring you? If that network is Facebook, there’s little to nothing you can do, as thousands of unhappy users, from people expressing sympathy towards the family of Anders Behring Breivik to activists and anti-monarchists in the UK can tell you. If the network is a federated network, you can just move to another federated network, or install one on your own server, and keep all your followers. Of course this also points to challenges we need to face regarding bullying, child porn, and other heinous crimes, but we will be able to find solutions to those problems. Trough free and uncensored discourse and innovation.

We can not have a real democracy if every public meatspace is converted into malls and privately owned parks, where the wish of the owners are the security guards demand, and every public cyberspace is converted into Facebook, with one ToS to rule them all. Our free society is dependent on the freedom to debate any issue and pursue any knowledge, no matter how damaging it might be to the ad revenues. We live in a society, not a corporation. We must keep it that way.

How can I try it?

There are many ways to try federation today. The most common way is to create an account on Identi.ca, which is based on StatusNet. From there you can follow users on MozillaCa or Brainbird or any of the other StatusNet servers. Or you can install StatusNet on your own server. Other networks who are federating includes Mediagoblin and Friendika. Diaspora is federated among itself. That is you can communicate between different Diaspora installations. But it is unfortunately not connected to the wider network of networks yet. Others working on federation includes buddycloud, Appleseed, Ampify, OpenPhoto and many, many more.

How can I contribute?

Spread the word and talk about why this is important. Tell your favorite tiny social network about the advantages of adopting federation. Contribute code to the OStatus or Unhosted effort. Read up on the FreedomBox and donate either your money or your time as a coder or translator. And maybe most importantly: Be active on those social networks that already are federated.

Anyone who’s read Jonathan Zittrains excellent book The Future of the Internet – And How to Stop It, or studied the history of the internet will recognize that we’ve been here before. AOL, CompuServe, and others operated privately controlled networks with a great network effect making it impossible for newcomers to compete. They where just as invincible as Facebook. Then came the internet.

Open up or die

My prediction is this: Clay is right. We will not see another turn of the wheel with another social network dethroning Facebook. But at some point the federated network of networks, with it’s thousands of laughably small social networks which Facebook can safely ignore on their own, will grow into an ultimatum: Open up and join something bigger than yourself, like AOL joined the internet, or die.

This might seem like the end, but if we start thinking like the internet it is only the beginning. That is, unless the Protect-IP Act is passed and breaks the internet. Please sign the petition against Protect-IP over at Demand Progress!

What do you think? Is this the solution? Is this a problem that needs a solution at all? Am I too optimistic or too pessimistic? And do you know of any other ways to be a part of the federation revolution? Please tell me in the comments here!

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