The other day my dear friend NakedJen was waking up to the power Facebook has because we use their system. She saw an endorsement by her friend, in the right margin on Facebook, of a product. It had her picture on it. She wondered if her friend had been paid for the endorsement, or even consulted. While I don't know for sure, I think the answer is "neither." Facebook has the right to do that. I'm sure it's in the user agreement. Which we all agree to, or we wouldn't be using Facebook.
The conversation continued.
I told her that I had stayed off Facebook for years because I didn't want to appear to endorse this system. But eventually the battle was lost, and my holding out wasn't accomplishing anything other than cutting me off from a social phenomenon. If I wanted to develop software in a post-Facebook world, if I didn't understand Facebook, my software would be missing an important historic precedent. Facebook exists, and nothing I can do can change that. So I might as well join the party, and I did, and no regrets.
Thing is, we've already ceded this kind of power to Google with video via YouTube. I heard a report on NPR on Sunday that was very depressing, an interview with a musician saying that YouTube had given her an agreement, take it or leave it, that said either you sign everything over to us, or you can't be part of YouTube. I didn't get the full story, just the gist. She said she thought the Internet was going to free us from the music industry. But it didn't do that. The music industry has rebooted, on the Internet. The money just flows to different bank accounts now.
You can see the process of ceding control happening right now, as essayists post their stories on Medium instead of their own blogs. There seems to be an assumption that you get more flow if you do this. I kind of doubt it. But even if there were more flow, you're ultimately forcing all of us to accept a deal that's probably going to be as bad as or worse than the one Facebook and YouTube have given us. Why? Because the lawyers and entrepreneurs of tech are learning, and they're getting better at grabbing, and users are not acting in their self-interest, any more than they were when Facebook and YouTube were taking over.
But even today it's not too late. Because economically and technically, we could reproduce what we have on Facebook on open systems, where everyone controls their own space, without signing over the kinds of rights that make users feel used. We saw some of the enthusiasm when Diaspora launched a few years ago, but they were college students, and weren't realistic about how to bootstrap such a system. You might say But Zuck was a college student when he booted up Facebook. But that system got to grow slowly, and their mistakes weren't exposed so quickly because they were small when they happened. If you wanted to boot up something that would do what Facebook does, today, you'd have to be prepared for a much bigger user community, almost immediately.
But what is Facebook, really? Where is the value in it, and is that so hard to reproduce? Seems to me it's basically a discussion board with a network data structure called "the graph." It's FriendFeed 2.0 (the current Facebook was designed by the creator of FriendFeed). There doesn't appear to be any rocket science in there. Maybe there is and I'm missing something. (There's no mystery to a graph. When I was a math undergrad I studied graph theory and wrote software that processed graphs. Long before there was a Facebook.)
Economically, there are huge economic resources that can be marshalled by users pooling their money. This isn't speculative, the money does flow. And I don't think each Facebook user consumes all that much in the way of computing and storage resources. $100 a year perhaps? Would you be willing to pay that to control your online destiny? You probably pay half that each month to your ISP.
It seems to me that all that's needed is the will to do it. By a few developers, and by a few users, to get a bootstrap started.
I'm not advocating anything. This isn't a proposal of any kind. But I thought about this the other day and asked myself the question -- is it possible? And I decided it is possible. So I thought, being a blogger and a developer and a user, as I am, that I should say that.