People are hungry for a privacy-respecting social network. So hungry that four college kids announce they are going to make an open version of Facebook, and pocket $100,000 in donations in the first two weeks.
Read on to find out why so many are steamed up about Facebook and what they intend to do about it.
I must confess, I’ve harbored an unfair grudge against Facebook ever since it beat out a competing system, The Picturebook, developed in a U-Me New Media class in 2003. In the past few years, as Facebook has enclosed more and more of the Web’s formerly open conversation, however, my bias has started to feel a lot more justified.
Which is why I’m not going to hold a grudge against the four NYU students who recently started an open alternative to Facebook, called Diaspora. It’s not the first such alternative, and maybe not even the best. But what makes Diaspora interesting is how its origins, and its timing, have touched a nerve. These four kids (ages 19-22) set out to raise $10,000 in 39 days using the crowdsource-funding site Kickstarter. As of this writing, they’ve already raised more than $180,000–and they’ve still got 14 days to go.
The NYU students say they were inspired by a rant against Mark Zuckerberg from Columbia professor and GPL legal innovator Eben Moglen. But Wired’s Ryan Singel had clearly thrown down the gauntlet, even if he didn’t fire the first shot:
Say you you write a public update, saying, “My boss had a crazy great idea for a new product!” Now, you might not know it, but there is a Facebook page for “My Crazy Boss” and because your post had all the right words, your post now shows up on that page. Include the words “FBI” or “CIA,” and you show up on the FBI or CIA page…
I’d like to make my friend list private. Cannot.
I’d like to have my profile visible only to my friends, not my boss. Cannot.
I’d like to support an anti-abortion group without my mother or the world knowing. Cannot…
Facebook has gone rogue, drunk on founder Mark Zuckerberg’s dreams of world domination. It’s time the rest of the web ecosystem recognizes this and works to replace it with something open and distributed.
It’s not just college students hoping to rewrite the social graph in a more distributed way. A coalition of rival companies, led by Meebo but including Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and MySpace, are banding together to create an open standard for sharing data across social networks. These features will be similar to Facebook’s Like and Share buttons, which enable Facebook to display how your friends are interacting with specific Web sites such as magazines or Yelp. Except that according to the plans of this new coalition, codenamed XAuth, you’ll be able to sign in with any social network account you want, rather than being trapped in Facebook’s walled garden.
According to Wired, Meebo’s XAuth is basically an online registry that serves a cookie that multiple social network can use to track your footprints on the Web. (A cookie is a file on your harddrive that tells a Web site you’ve been there before.) It’s unclear at this point how much data from one social network could be discovered by the others by examining the cookie.
Why is this better than Facebook? Well, Facebook’s version of such social plug-ins, christened with the liberal-sounding moniker “Open Graph,” uses a similarly old-school technology: an iFrame. Essentially, Facebook is offering its Web partners a chance to put a Facebook page inside their own Web pages. To keep track of your presence on multiple Web sites, Facebook is supporting an alternative authentication system called OAuth, as well as a semantic HTML markup for telling Facebook that, say, a Web site is devoted to music so it can appear in the appropriate place in Facebook’s user profiles. It’s nice to see the Semantic Web actually make a difference in people’s experience of browsing–but disturbing that its categories would be mandated by one commercial company’s datamining interests rather than an open consortium.
Also, according to Wired, the existence of the “Like” button suggests an opt-in choice that belies the default way Facebook and its partners are datamining your browsing habits without your knowing:
Logged-in Facebook users will also be transmitting information about their travels around the net to Facebook servers whenever they visit a page deploying the Like button, regardless of whether they actually click that button or not. Facebook also plans to transmit user data to some web services ahead of their visit — so that when you visit the site, it’s “instantly personalized.” In practice, this means that if you are new to the music site Pandora, they’ll have a custom station waiting for you based on the music you’ve liked in your profile.
Say you’re not ready to give up Facebook but want to stem the hemorrhage of your private data out into the open. The bad news is that last December Facebook made everyone’s data public by default, and simultaneously made it complicated to undo that setting. The good news is that Wired has a guide on how to make your Facebook account as private as possible. (The word “private” here having the meaning of hidden from your employer and mother–not from Facebook’s datamining partners, which include the US government.)
Note that this wiki appears to have been updated to include Facebook’s making even *more* data public in April without notifying its users–like your education and work history. And if you’ve been using Facebook for some time, you probably added some of this information at a time when Facebook explicitly promised it would not be part of your public profile.
It’s not yet clear whether any of these open alternatives will supplant Facebook’s unscrupulous spyware. But it is clear that when you can no longer trust the driver, it’s time to take over the wheel.