#DeleteFacebook. Now what?
I have deleted my Facebook account in 2015 and I fully support the idea. But focusing solely on the deletion, in my opinion, is missing the point. I think we should also be trying to define what kind of Internet we want instead, and be shaping it together.
This post is not going to be about a yet another “Facebook killer” service. Rather, I’d like to outline some general ideas that have been around for a while about how user-centered social networks might be built, and provide some examples in the end.
It’s not about technology
From time to time I hear something like: “you have to choose between privacy and technology.” I.e. — if you value privacy, you have to give up technology, and probably go live in the forests. This kind of framing is very useful to companies like Facebook who want us to believe that being modern and cool is all about having one’s private life uploaded and monetized by a jungle of glossy commercial apps and services.
But guess what — there’s nothing about technology that requires your birth date, real name (whatever that means) or gender to transmit a bunch of bits from your screen to someone else’s. Your computer or phone doesn’t care about your age or political views. Your web browser doesn’t care. The Internet doesn’t care.
The ones who care include advertisers, banks, governments, insurers, market research companies, political campaigns, employers, spammers, scammers, etc. But do we have to depend on their constant presence in our digital lives to be able to use technology at all? Of course not.
It’s not a technical problem, it’s a social one.
A Facebook clone? Probably not.
It wouldn’t make any sense to delete Facebook just to have a clone appear with the same kind of gamified user experience and the same problems. In other words, if we want to fix it, we need to be open to something that may not exactly be a clone of Facebook.
In fact, I believe what we need is not a single “drop-in” replacement for Facebook, but an open network of interoperable, connected and decentralized alternatives, where users could freely migrate from one service to another while still being able to stay connected with their friends, regardless if they are on the same system or on a different one.
Moreover, users and communities could also decide to go self-hosting and store their data on their own servers, while still be a part of the larger network of systems and servers.
Sounds strange and complicated?
Yet this is exactly how the Internet was designed to operate from the very beginning. No single point of failure, no single point of control.
A simple example of this is email. You can freely exchange emails with people whose mailboxes are hosted by different service providers than yours, and you probably barely notice any difference. The process of sending email from Gmail to Yahoo is the same as sending one within Gmail.
Commercial as well as non-commercial
Running and maintaining a server requires money, but the money doesn’t necessarily have to come from monetizing and selling user data. Take Wikipedia for instance: it is able to handle huge amounts of traffic and storage on donations. Many smaller community-run services work this way, and don’t require huge amounts of money.
There are also other ways to run a commercial service without going data-mining on users. Providing free accounts with optional paid upgrades for things like additional storage and supplementary services (say, file hosting and sync, customized service for organizations, etc) is one of the possibilities.
Standardized and (preferably) open-source
The Internet is built on open standards and protocols. It would not exist otherwise. Just building a website without open standards would have been a nightmare: you would have to rebuild it separately for every browser and maybe get a bunch of licenses for proprietary components. Luckily, the days of “works best in X” web are long gone.
If we want sustainable, interoperable social networks, we need them to support common, clearly defined communication protocols that would make them compatible with each other.
Moreover, the Internet is powered by open-source and libre software. By sharing the code and improving it collectively, we are benefiting each other.
A social network with open-source codebase is much more sustainable than a closed-source, single-company one. If the primary developer of an open-source network does something the users don’t like, they can take the code and start a new server without the bits that they might consider toxic for them.
A word on existing projects
Social networking systems based on these ideas have been around for a while, and new ones continue to appear. They are often linked with each other so that users can freely communicate across different ones. Examples include Diaspora, Mastodon, Friendica, Hubzilla, Socialhome, GnuSocial and others, spanning hundreds of community-run interconnected servers around the world. They are sometimes called “federated social networks,” because the servers are independent yet part of a larger network. The code is open-source and everyone can participate in the development.
The thing is, it’s not a specific network that matters here, and I won’t go into detail about each of them. It’s the general principle of openness and interoperability that allows users to be independent of any single company and stay connected with whom they like.
In the end, it’s we, the users, who shape the Internet, by our choices and actions. And it’s up to us to take the responsibility for the future of the Internet and our digital environment.
So go ahead and explore, discuss, learn, criticize, improve, extend and shape the Internet as you want it for yourself, others around you and the future generations.