No, I am not interested in joining your proprietary social network

I don’t care whether it’s ello or sgrouples or FriendFace or app.net or whatever, I am not joining another walled-in social network owned by a single organization. I already have enough of those.

I don’t care if it has a strong privacy policy, I don’t care if it has good security, I don’t care if it has no advertising, I don’t care if it will let you remain pseudonymous, I don’t care if the people who own it are really cool. All of those things are worthless if the site is controlled by a single organization, because they can all be changed on a whim.

Remember, Facebook used to be ad-free, somewhat closed, had no data mining, and didn’t force you to sign up with your real name. Then they decided they had to make money, and their only resource was a captive user base.

Twitter used to be ad-free with no data mining, and it used to be open so anyone could write clients for it. Then they decided they had to make money, and that meant making sure clients showed ads properly, and that meant locking out your favorite Twitter client and showing you posts that nobody had retweeted.

Go back even further into the past, and LiveJournal used to be run by a small team of people who were directly engaged with their user base. Then they sold out to a company who didn’t care, who sold out to a Russian company who were in it for the money.

Make no mistake, this cycle will repeat itself with ello and all the other closed-off single-provider social networks. Servers cost significant time and money to run — I know because I run some. Unless you have an eccentric millionaire or a trust fund to pay for the hosting, as the site grows, sooner or later someone’s going to decide that it needs to pay for itself. In fact, even if you have funding from an eccentric millionaire, you’re still reliant on their whims to keep the privacy and advertising policies you like.

Venture capitalists are not philanthropists. They didn’t lend ello half a million dollars so that it could be run on donations as a not-for-profit, no matter what the founder may say about having unconstrained choices. The fact that ello aren’t upfront about their funding is very telling.

So, what’s the alternative? One word: federation.

What we need are social networks which are open, like e-mail and the web; where anyone who wants to can set up their own server (or pay someone else to do it) and join the conversation via a system they control. We need social systems which are decentralized, rather than centralized and corporate. Systems where at a minimum, there are multiple independent organizations running servers, and you can migrate if you decide you don’t like the one you’re relying on.

There’s a system which is built that way. It also has no ads, doesn’t require that you provide your “real” name or specify your gender, doesn’t aggregate your data for sale to corporations, and doesn’t run ads. It has per-post privacy settings, so you can share just with the people you trust. You can post pictures and comments, discuss things with friends in discussion threads, and do most of the other stuff you do on Facebook or Twitter.

It’s called Diaspora. You may have heard of it. It was big for a while, but then people were disappointed with the initial code, and tragically one of the lead developers committed suicide.

Diaspora isn’t as pretty as other social networks. It doesn’t have signup pages making elaborate feel-good promises. It isn’t popular with celebrities. But it works, and you can sign up for it right now, and because it’s open source it isn’t going to be ripped away from you or turned into the next privacy-destroying corporate panopticon. Want to give it a try? Tutorials are available, you can pick from dozens of service providers, and my profile’s public.

So in summary: Please don’t waste time asking me to join another walled-off “social” network. If you find a decentralized system that’s better than Diaspora, I’m all for that, but no, I’m not interested in the next Facebook, Twitter or Google+.

Diaspora Screenshot
Creative Commons License Antonio Pardo via Compfight

NSA ♥ Facebook

A while back, the Washington Post reported on a set of leaked NSA slides that most people seem to have ignored.

There was one interesting piece of data in the report that I think deserves more attention. On the slide titled “Address Books” is a table setting out how many people’s address books have been collected, and how many are “Attributed” — that is, how many allow the NSA to tie an online ID to a real named person.

Address Books

Here’s the data as a table, to make it easier to read:

Provider Collected Attributed Attributed%
Yahoo 444743 11009 2.48%
Hotmail 105068 1115 1.06%
Gmail 33697 2350 6.97%
Facebook 82857 79437 95.87%
Other 22881 1175 5.14%
Total 689246 95086 13.80%

Notice that Facebook is far and away the NSA’s best source of information about you and your friends. Doing the math, 79437/95086 = 84% of the NSA’s information linking named individuals to their friends online is sourced from Facebook.

Why Facebook sucks

Now that people are starting to migrate from Facebook to Google Plus, I see a lot of people asking, apparently seriously, what’s wrong with Facebook. Given that Facebook is hated as much as airlines, it seems likely that the site has few dedicated fans willing to stick around when everyone else leaves. I’m certainly not one of them, and here’s why.

Facebook insists that you get a new e-mail inbox, which you can only access from Facebook. You can get e-mail notifications in your existing e-mail, but to reply you still have to go to Facebook. I don’t want another inbox, especially not a proprietary one. In Google Plus, the button to send a private message can be disabled, allowed only for certain people, and can forward to any e-mail inbox you want.

Facebook insists that you get a new instant messaging ID, which you can only use to talk to other Facebook users. I don’t want another proprietary IM ID. Google Plus uses Google Talk, which is based on the Internet standard XMPP and is federated with Jabber and AIM so you can talk to people on those networks too.

Facebook won’t let you export your friends’ contact information or sync it with your phone. Google, in contrast, offers Google Takeout to export everything, and also offers full contact sync via an open API.

Facebook is signing up with Microsoft and Skype to implement their voice and video chat. Skype is a closed proprietary protocol, deliberately obfuscated and encrypted to make it impossible for anyone else to interoperate with it. In contrast, Google document their additions to the standard XMPP video and audio protocols, and state their belief that people should have a free choice of competing clients.

Facebook have slowly and deliberately eroded users’ privacy. While Google has had a few privacy failings (principally with Buzz, which I didn’t use), they are far better than Facebook in this area.

Facebook is buggy. I routinely see a different news feed depending on whether I use the app on my phone or the main web site.

Google Plus’s “circles” are simple to set up and simple to use. The equivalent functionality in Facebook is hard to find and a pain to set up. (At the time of writing, you create a list as follows: Click “Friends” in left menu, “Edit Friends” top right, click “Create a List” top right, find a person by typing their name into the search box, click the drop down to the right of the search result, and click the name of the list you created. To use a list, you must then click the lock under a posting you’re writing, click Customize, under “Make this visible to” select “Specific People…”, in the text box type the name of the list you created, and click “Save Setting”.) Whether this is just bad UI design or a deliberate attempt to make the process painful so people don’t do it, I don’t know.

Want more reasons to dislike Facebook? Check out Wikipedia’s criticism of Facebook article, particularly the section on censorship. The latest victim is Roger Ebert.

And then there’s Mark Zuckerberg himself, and his attitude to privacy issues in the early days. Businesses’ cultural attitudes tend to flow from the top down.

As a final note, I’m not an absolutist. I recognize that there are things Google has done wrong, and things they continue to do wrong. However, moving from Facebook to Google Plus seems to me to be overall greatly positive, from the point of view of privacy, openness, access to data, and general levels of evil. When something even better comes along, I’ll consider moving to it. Until then, I’m done posting on Facebook, though I’ll keep reading it for the time being.

I’m also sure there are people who will keep using Facebook, and not use Google Plus. There are probably people still using MySpace and refusing to use Facebook too. That’s their decision, and they’re welcome to it, but it’s not going to affect my decision.

⊕/⊖

I really want someone to provide a viable alternative to Facebook.

This week Google launched Google Plus. Before long I got an e-mail from someone inviting me to a “Hangout”. Clicking the link took me to a page that told me I wasn’t allowed in. Clicking the link to unsubscribe from such e-mails took me to a 404 page. That’s not social networking, that’s spam. I flagged it as such.

Also, a few weeks ago someone flagged my Google Profile as violating community standards. All the information in it was accurate, there was no swearing, no nudity, and no indication of what specifically they were objecting to… So I clicked the link to have it reviewed again. Back it came, rejected again, no explanation, with my photo removed. I tried a different photo, clicked to have it reviewed again. Rejected again. So I deleted the whole thing.

At that point, Latitude started failing on my Android phone. It turns out that there’s an undocumented dependency between having a Profile and using Latitude. So I created a blank private profile and submitted that. It was approved.

So this month Google told me I wasn’t allowed to post a useful public profile, invited me to a social networking service and then immediately told me to go away, and spammed me. This suggests to me that Google as an organization still doesn’t understand social networking.

I also tried to set up Friendika. After hitting three successive technical roadblocks and wading around in PHP internals for hours to try and debug them, I decided it just wasn’t very robust, and gave up. I mean, I’m not an idiot, I can deploy WordPress in minutes.

Earlier in the year I tried Diaspora. That seems to work, but so far nobody much seems to be using it. I’m giving it another try. Development progress seems to be relatively slow.

Update 2011-07-01

Well, I’m now in Google Plus. First impressions: It’s basically Diaspora, with an interface that’s more like Facebook. I still don’t see any value in wasting my time entering profile information until they fix their transparency issues, but it’s as good as Facebook for the things I use Facebook for–sharing links, posting occasional casual photos, and not much else.