Version 11 (modified by Daniel Kahn Gillmor, 8 years ago) (diff)

cleaned up capitalization

The Problem with Proprietary Social Networks

We've received requests from friends and family with the best intentions, inviting us to "join" proprietary social networking sites like Facebook, Myspace, LinkedIn and Friendster. We won't join them. This attempts to start answering why. At the time of this writing, Facebook seems to be the dominant proprietary social networking site, so this targets them directly. Most of the criticism is applicable to any proprietary social network, though.

More and more people rely on Facebook (or similar sites like Myspace or Friendster) for keeping in touch with their friends and family, and it worries me.

We are resistant to using big commercial "Social Networking" sites for political and social reasons.

Political Problems

One big reason is that we don't think it's a good idea to leave the communications infrastructure you rely on in the hands of a group that you don't trust.

So, why don't we trust Facebook in particular?

  • Facebook has no explicit policy that we're aware of that the data you post on their site is your data, nor that the contacts you make are your contacts. That is, they appear to be able to arbitrarily revoke accounts, refuse to let you access your data, and block you from your contacts made through the site. You have no recourse if they do this. This has happened to one acquaintance that we know of. It is unclear how common it is, but we really don't feel like opening ourselves up to that possibility.
  • Facebook has no stated political goals that we agree with. As far as we can tell, they have no explicitly-stated political goals at all, which makes them a cipher at best. You can imagine the worst. At CMRG, we prefer to know where the groups we work with stand, and we prefer to work with groups whose political stances mesh with ours in at least some aspects.
  • Facebook is making noises like it is up for sale at the moment, with competing megacorps vying for control. Whether Google, Microsoft, or Yahoo! ends up with a controlling stake in the organization, policies are sure to change after the acquisition, And the ostensibly private data and contact networks stored in Facebook are likely to be mined by the acquiring company. No, thanks.
  • Facebook, like Myspace and Friendster before it, seems likely to wane in popularity in the near future as the next fad hits. It could also fail simply for lack of money, stupid business decisions, etc. If a Facebook collapse happens, will there be a way for for ex-facebook members to move their contacts and data to the next trendy webapp? We'd prefer for our social existence and private communications not to be thrown into upheaval based on the latest ad-fueled frenzy.

All of these reasons are relevant for any commercial/proprietary venture, or even non-commercial ventures run by groups who give you no reason to trust them.

Social Problems

Our other big reason is that we think that "closed" social networks operated by 3rd parties are damaging to the health of the internet as a whole.

The web itself is effectively the largest "social network" in the world, and it has an open architecture; anyone can set up pages that link to anyone else. As soon as a group like Facebook sets up private membership requirements for viewing most of its content, that content is closed off from everyone else. This means the content can't be indexed by any search engine except the agents run by the owners of the domain. This privacy is occasionally useful, but it puts too much power in the hands of the domain owners, and by default walls too much of the information off from the rest of the world, who might legitimately make use of to the information. It also means if a Facebook member wants to allow a friend access to her pages there, she must recruit her friend to participate in Facebook, including agreeing to Facebook's rather unpleasant Terms of Use. Facebook (or any other similar social networking app) becomes a profit-driven gatekeeper between friends.

Even worse is that the engineers of the proprietary environment can effectively limit what forms of interaction are possible. So for example, if the engineers decide that the only way to do group decision making is to have a majority-wins vote, that's the only way which a group formed on that platform will be able to make decisions officially. This is the case even if the members of the group might prefer a consensus model of decision making, for example.

As an example of the way that infrastructure owners can make unilateral decisions that affect their entire userbase, consider the recent announcement by Facebook that all of a user's purchases from partner sites would be logged under their "Beacon" program, and listed on feeds show to your Facebook friends. Even if you presume that the Facebook parent company would respect your privacy around the aggregation of those purchases (uh, what?), why should they make it default to showing them all to all your friends? While the idea of the service is an interesting one, the owners of Facebook are the ones with the power to make it opt-in or opt-out, and to control even what options are available. No, thanks.


  • -- a social networking implementation made by a radical group. It focuses on offering alternative modes of interaction to participants, and the people running it are significantly more trustworthy than any commercial entity. However, it looks like it's still a data silo -- it's not clear how to get your information out of the site cleanly should you decide you want to check out.
  • noserub -- an interesting project, with the goal of creating a distributed social network layer on top of the web -- this would avoid the data silo concerns, and allow people to control their data.
  • onesocialweb -- XMPP-based open platform for social networking
  • foaf+ssl -- distributed, cryptographically-secured social networking
  • GNU Social -- a distributed social networking platform proposed by the FSF