There's an article in today's NY Times about a group of four NYU comp sci students who are embarking on a great adventure to create a decentralized version of Facebook, where the data is under the user's control.
This goal is right on, it's something I've written about many times, it's why the Internet is such a breath of fresh air compared to the locked trunk schemes of tech companies. That the article appeared in the Times is an indication that they share the aspiration of many users to be free of control of not only Facebook, but the whole tech industry. A worthy goal for the students, a worthy goal for the Times.
The news people are always doing this. Pumping up a bunch of nice-looking young men (almost always men) to be David in an epic Boy Kills Boy battle to the death with Goliath. These beautiful young men are going to flail against the machine and emerge victorious. Or more likely be forgotten like so many who came before.
Example: A 2005 Times article by John Markoff about a new startup that aims to commercialize podcasting. Didn't happen.
It's irresponsible of the Times to run such a piece. There must be a dozen projects all over the world that are much further along than this one. It's definitely not good for users to focus so much attention on a project that doesn't exist, instead of ones that do.
To be clear, I'm on their side. I hope they're successful. But instead of setting the expectations so high, I would prefer to see them bite off a smaller piece of the pie. We could really use a great open source Twitter client, a smaller more pragmatic goal, and much more likely to be realized in the three months they've set aside to Change The World.
Last week I wrote about Coach Walsh and the 49ers and setting expectations a notch below reality. Let's step back from this and wish these young men well, and hope they can help the rest of us achieve some small independence from the tech industry. And let's hope next time a big publication like the Times writes puffery like this, that some editor points out all the pitfalls of such a project and gets them to stifle the hype, just a little.
Note: I am a visiting scholar this year at NYU, in the journalism institute. I am remarkably close to this story, but have never met the students.