Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Facing Facebook lock-in

A long time ago (in internet terms anyway) I explained why I was an early adopter and then an early abandoner of Facebook. Given the path Facebook has followed in its treatment of its users — this chart tells you everything you need to know about that — I’m really glad I got out when I did, because I know what it’s like to feel locked into a digital environment I have serious qualms about: thus my ongoing Google emancipation project. If I had been using Facebook regularly for the past few years, I’m sure it would be hard for me to figure out how to do without it, because there are no alternatives to Facebook. Not right now at least, though some folks are hoping and others are trying.

But even if a legitimate alternative emerges, you can't just make the unilateral decision to move there — you have to get your friends to move also, and to move to the same alternative that you’ve chosen. My rejection of Google has been difficult enough, and it doesn't pose that problem: email is email — based on a set of open protocols, thanks be to God — so while I may experience some annoyance at losing my favorite Gmail features, I can communicate with all the same people I communicated with before, and in just the same way. The transition is seamless. Similarly, thanks to the assistance and server-provision of my friend Matt Frost, I’m getting my RSS feeds via Fever — and RSS and Atom are similarly open standards, so that it’s trivial to shift from one client to another.

Facebook doesn't work that way: everything about it is closed and proprietary, and since it’s fundamentally social, it doesn't even make all that much sense to talk about taking your own data out of Facebook: the value of the service lies in the relation of your data to other people’s data, and the only way for that value to be ported elsewhere is for all your friends’ data to move along with yours. But that would likely be a case of “meet the new boss, same as the old boss”: any other company that held that much social information would be unlikely to wield its power any less crassly than Facebook has. Power corrupts, and lots of power corrupts a lot. To coin a phrase.

The only answer to this difficulty — since danah boyd’s idea that Facebook should be regulated as a utility is manifestly ridiculous — is for everyone’s social presence online to become more widely distributed among multiple services. But of course that would mean the end of the convenience of having a one-stop social shop.

So Facebook users are presented with a choice: they can have more privacy, more control over their own personal information, or they can have convenience. I bet I know what 95% of them will choose — and again, I might be making the same choice if I had been putting stuff into Facebook for the past three years.

Moral of this story: before buying into an online service, always make sure you know where the exits are. And that they’re unlocked.

(By the way, I wonder if Farhad Manjoo still thinks there’s no legitimate reason for not using Facebook?)

(Also by the way, much of what I say here about Facebook is also true of Twitter — but some of it isn't, which is why I’m not getting off Twitter anytime soon. Maybe I’ll find time to explain this later.)


  • How satisfied are you with Fever?

  • Jury's still out on Fever. Plusses: Good UI, good overall design, total ownership of data, access from anywhere, excellent iPhone-optimized page. Minuses: my one server obviously lacks the power of Google's many, so feeds load slowly; also, Fever fails to recognize and update some feeds, for reasons I haven't yet determined.

    There's no question in my mind that Google Reader is the best feed reader available, Google Calendar the best online calendar, and Gmail the best email client available. So in rejecting Google I am having to replace their products with inferior ones. This makes me wonder if I am going to be able to keep up my boycott.

  • Just testing to see if comments are working. Don't mind me.

  • I just journeyed down the rabbit hole of your Facebook label. Interesting stuff.

    My wife and I decided to ditch Facebook about a year ago--after having bene users since 2005 or maybe 2006. It was indeed a rather difficult decision, given the investment and connections... And we had been feeling "locked in" for a year or so prior--we wanted to give it up, but we couldn't quite bring outselves to do so.

    What's remarkable, though, is how *little* I have ever missed it. There wasn't even a withdrawal phase, really. I miss almost nothing of it.

    In fact, the only thing that bothered me in any noticeable way was the rather precipitous drop in hits to my blog. So I did, in fact, miss the self-promotional aspects of it--meaning, as my wife was quick to point out, leaving Facebook was a challenge to my vaingloriousness (if that's a word).

    So. Good riddance.

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