The Diaspora that wasn't, and the way into the walled gardens.

About a year ago, I deleted my Facebook account. This was just after Facebook introduced the "like" button on other sites. It didn't take me long to figure out that what Facebook was doing was moving from beyond their little walled garden, and instead were moving into tracking my movements on various sites. I found this whole thing reprehensible, and decided that enough was enough. I deleted my Facebook account, and blocked facebook.com at the router. The cut was clean.

Recently, JoDee did a search for someone that she lost contact with a while back. One of the results was a picture of this friend via Facebook. I asked her if she wanted me to lift the ban, temporarily, but she declined. That got me thinking about my Facebook account deletion.

Before everyone and their brother hopped onto Facebook, I got more comments on my blog from folks that aren't the usual tech suspects (you'll probably see a who's who of the tech folks in the comments section on this blog entry). When I had a Facebook account, I would syndicate the blog feed over to the notes section, just as I had with Livejournal before it. What I noticed is I would get comments on the blog entry over on Facebook. Heck, I even got posts from family members that I hadn't talked to in years when I posted that my Grandmother passed away. Facebook had given me another means of communicating with folks. Its' not that the means of communication was unavailable to most people (after all, the blog is still here, and comments are open), but what Facebook gave them was a convenient dashboard where they could easily read, review, and comment on a post. When I gave up Facebook, I essentially deprived those folks of that convenience. By making a choice between my own personal privacy, I made a choice that I didn't want to use their platform for communicating anymore. Unfortunately, with the way that Facebook is designed, once you leave the system, you can't communicate via the system.

When I was in college, just as the Internet was making inroads into most systems, we had a VAX system from DEC. Every student was granted an account on the VAX machine, where they could do things like use WordPerfect, send e-mail, and so-on. As I became friends with some people, I was introduced to a mailing list called The Programmers League, or TPL. TPL was a social group on the VAX, where folks could send messages to each other. I actually was granted permission to add folks to the mailing list at one point. It was hugely fascinating, and very social. And, much like Facebook, once you left the confines of the VAX machine (via graduation and account deletion), it was no longer available to you. I'm not sure if it carried on after I graduated, since I'd moved on to the Internet proper via MERIT accounts, and the like. (e-mail addresses were like Pokemon: collect them all!) However, even if I wanted it to carry on, eventually at some point it wouldn't. Eventually, the accounts for alumni would be purged.

Just about every person involved with Free, Libre, and Open Source Software (referred from here-on as FLOSS) recognizes the problems with Facebook: it's a walled garden, sharing of personal information is opt-out (assuming you can find it), questionable practices regarding tracking for advertisements, questions of ownership of data, and so on. Even more folks recognize that Facebook is the 800lb gorilla in the room (What does an 800lb gorilla do? Anything it wants). What is less apparent is what the appropriate FLOSS response to Facebook should be.

Diaspora is one of those responses. They're not necessarily the only response (there are others) but I think it's indicative of the wrong sort of response to this problem. The biggest problem with Diaspora today is it solves the wrong problem. Diaspora is essentially a clone of Facebook with all of the privacy controls brought to the forefront. While this is indeed one of the problems with Facebook, the solution in Diaspora is misguided in thinking this is the only problem with Facebook. If Facebook were to adopt Diaspora's privacy controls, there would still be problems with Facebook. Diaspora's approach is fundamentally flawed. Unfortunately, they have enough mindshare from their campaign to get started that folks may think this is the best that the FLOSS community can do. They may settle for what Diaspora offers. That is absolutely not what FLOSS should do.

One thing that FLOSS gets right is open protocols. Identi.ca, for all of it's warts as a community, gets that the problem with Twitter isn't that we need to have access to the code (although that is one problem). The problem with Twitter is that it too is a walled garden. In order to communicate with anyone on Twitter, I must have an account on Twitter. Identi.ca (and the underlying software, Status.net) gets this right by allowing federation using OStatus. Federation via OStatus allows me to set up a Status.net instance wherever I choose, and allows me to follow folks on other Status.net instances. It's a brilliant approach, and I hope it gains more momentum. Unfortunately, it doesn't have enough momentum right now to make Twitter adopt it. And why should Twitter expend their energies to adopt OStatus? After all, they're the ones with the larger community.

And that's what FLOSS needs to build. We need to build communities and software around open protocols. We need to make it so that social networking is a protocol, much like e-mail is a protocol. We need to have sites and services that can communicate with each other seamlessly, so that I don't have to care if someone is using Facebook or Twitter, nor do they have to care if I'm using Identi.ca or Diaspora, yet we both can communicate with each other. We need to create critical mass around open standards and protocols. We need to implement sites with protocols like One Social Web. Every social media application from FLOSS needs to implement these, so that no matter what you use today or tomorrow, you'll still be able to communicate with each other. If we can solve the problem of making social media as ubiquitous and easy to use as e-mail, Facebook and Twitter will want to implement these protocols or be left behind.

I presented these ideas to folks in my local Ubuntu channel, and they were skeptical. Indeed, taking on the behemoths of Facebook and Twitter will be challenging. Getting folks away from the social crack of these services will take time and energy. Much like lecturing a junkie that they're ruining their life with drugs, FLOSS will not win by lecturing folks that they're giving away their privacy and freedom to corporations. FLOSS needs to build a community and momentum around open protocols, and build sites that use these open protocols. The Internet e-mail system got AOL and Compuserve to open up their e-mail systems back when, and I think we (FLOSS) can do it again with Facebook and Twitter.

And then we can have a true diaspora.


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