Why Decentralize Facebook

October 17, 2010

Last week, I saw The Social Network. I enjoyed it as a movie (like everyone else, it seems), but it also made me unhappy, because it reminded me what a misdirected force Facebook is in danger of becoming (or already is). As most people realize, Facebook centralizes too much power; unless it changes course, this will be its undoing. I hear cheers from some in the audience, but it’s the users who will suffer along the way.

I’ll start with a quote from writer Jessi Hempel, reviewing the movie from the perspective of someone who claims to knows Mark Zuckerberg personally:

The real-life Zuckerberg was maniacally focused on building a web site that could potentially connect everyone on the planet. As early as 2005, he told me, “It’s a social utility and what makes it work will be ubiquity.” [Fortune]

To a first approximation, that’s the same as my goal of many years: building a system to connect everyone on the planet. But I don’t think it can possibly work if it’s a centralized system, with one organization controlling it to any substantial degree. Facebook may have 500m users, but it’s not going to get to 5b users until it’s a truly decentralized, open platform like the Internet and the Web.

More importantly, it wont get to the point where we can, in good conscience, require or assume our fellow travellers on this planet use it, as we generally can with email, the Web, and the telephone network. Some communities (eg schools) are requiring people use Facebook, and I’m not the only one who finds that scary and offensive.

Of course, Mark Zuckerberg is a smart guy. Wired reports him saying:

I don’t think the world is going to evolve in a way that there is just one big site. I think it is going to be that there are going to be a lot of really great services and we are helping to get it there. I think people are always a little skeptical when something grows to something big, but I think you need to look at what it is doing.

And he’s not the only one. When Google made their first attempt to replace email with Wave, they knew it would have to be decentralized, with them just being one of many equal hubs.

When I was younger, I loved decentralization because it got us out from under the control of authorities I didn’t respect. I think that particular fire may have gone out for me, but I still see the need: if we’re going to build the kind of universally shared apps the planet needs (and Facebook dreams of), they have to be built on an open, decentralized platform. Otherwise there is no way they’ll be able to reach even as far as the Web does now.

In a perfect world, I would now sketch out how to build a decentralized version of Facebook. But I seem to have too much else to do right now. So, at very least, that will have to wait for another day.

I can say that it would be built using linked data. I came to linked data as a good way to build global scale shared/social apps, and I still think it’s the best approach. There are some more details to work out, though. Sadly, I haven’t come across any promising funding or business models to support that work. Decentralized businesses don’t have market lock-in and $100m+ exits.

It may be Diaspora will do it. I’m confident before they get very far they’ll have to re-invent or adopt RDF, and eventually the rest of the SemWeb stack. I haven’t yet looked at their design. It may also be Facebook itself will do it. (The fact that Zuckerberg still controls the company, instead of investors, makes it somewhat more likely.)

I suppose, after saying all this, it’s on me to show how SemWeb technology actually helps. Or is that obvious?

Edited to Add: I got a private question about my claim that facebook can’t scale to 5b users, so let me expand on that a little. I see two things stopping them:

  1. A branding, and look-and-feel problem. Some people hate facebook, without even knowing why. Some people find the site awkward and difficult. This is going to be true of any site; I think the only way around this is to provide for multiple brands with multiple user interfaces. In theory, facebook could do this themselves, much like car manufacturers have multiple “makes”: Cadillac and Chevy are just product lines from the same company, but people’s feelings are directly mostly at the product line.
  2. A trust issue. Some communities (including some governments) will, quite rightly, refuse to trust facebook to operate in the way they want. It’s possible facebook can find a way to address this concern as well, with special contracts, and even special data centers. For instance, it wouldn’t be impossible for them to build a facebook cluster for CIA internal use, in a CIA facility, subject to full CIA controls, but still somewhat interoperable with facebook at large. But I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for that to happen, either. I’m not sure how it will play out when teachers ask their students, and their parents, to use facebook.

So, that’s not an ironclad argument that they can’t grow to 5b, but that’s what I’m thinking.

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13 Responses to “Why Decentralize Facebook”


  1. […] is the authentic post: Why Decentralize facebook or twitter « Decentralyze – Programming the details Cloud Category: Uncategorized Tags: because-it-reminded, like-everyone, most-people Cancel […]

  2. Claudio Says:

    At the same time, you are talking about openness and the Congress and Government in Spain are trying to close it more because privacy issues with some Apps. I guess this utopia can’t be possible is this world. I’m far to be a defender of FaceBoook, but I think one of the most innovator functionality is theirs APIs and how open they are. I wish also that I could do more with the info and it to be more open, but you know what is going to happen with this discredit movement originated by the movie. Facebook is going to close more theirs APIs, and eventually disappear. Alls eyes are now in Facebook, but I think the really Black Force is Google. This business is going to take over the world: First Search Engine, then eMail, then GPS, then Payment, then Mobile, then Telecommunication, then Television, then Operating System, then Energy, then, then Wather, Air, Food??? Robots? What business is not now afraid of Google? I see Google like a black cloud in the horizon.
    The weird thing is all of us believe that Google hates Microsoft, but they are becoming something bigger and powerful than Microsoft. How much time you think Google needs in order to launch his Social Network? Well I think it is already done, they just are waiting the perfect moment to launch it.
    Back to the Subject, I hope the Congress and Spain Government can understand then the problem is not the APIs, is the use other company do with it. Because, if they don’t realize this, and hunt the people that use bad the information, they are closing much more than a Business.

  3. sandhawke Says:

    Hmmm, I haven’t seen Google Water yet. I bet it’ll be great! :-) I wonder how it will compare to Apple’s competing product, to be called Apple “Juice”, I’m sure.

    Seriously, one of the reasons to decentralize is for robustness in the face of various failure modes, including political ones. It’s hard to imagine Facebook getting shut down, but it’s even harder to imagine email and the Web getting shut down; when the system doesn’t rely on a single organization, it’s much stronger.

    (Of course, email and the Web do rely on the Internet, so they rely on certain centralized structures, like ICANN and the DNS. My argument is to minimize additional centralized points of control.)

  4. Claudio Says:

    Good one… Apple Juice. LOL
    But please don’t misunderstand me, I mean – and it is just my point of view – Google products are amazing, how amazing they are, that for many people like me, to develop better products without that amount of money that they can spend in failure and successful projects, it is impossible to go as faster than Google does. Google is a pure R&D business! We have the ideas, but we can’t move faster because we have to analyze a lot, before spend a dime… And the budget to compete with Google is prohibited. And that is why Google is going to take over the world :-) because they have a very smart business approach, that I admire and I’d wished all the companies I have worked for, have it.
    I hope you see down in the deep the relationship of this subject with your original article. I tried to said that if is not Facebook the center, will be other, but the world is maybe not ready to decentralize the information. Is Linked Data not a way to centralize it again? Where will be going the people to know people’s relationship? Won’t it be to a centralized place again? The successful of the search engines are because you can go at your preferred search engine to find what you are looking for. Before search engines, it was impossible to find something. If we decentralize Social Network, we need to centralize it again, and Semantic Web will be the perfect solution, and that is your point I guess.
    I really understand your great idea to use Linked data in order to centralize all the information of decentralized Social Networks, and I’m very sure that your vision is going to be a reality somehow. But what push me to comment your article is because I think all this movement is just about the movie as you mention in your article, because now I’m feeling that everyone want to do something to break Facebook and everyone want that Zuckerberg fails. Am I wrong?

  5. Tod Robbins Says:

    How do you feel about projects like Diaspora? http://www.joindiaspora.com/

  6. sandhawke Says:

    I don’t have much to say about Diaspora that I didn’t say in the post. I’m excited for them, and a little jealous of them getting to dive into such a project, and I hope it works out well. I haven’t looked at their design at all yet, etc. How about you?

  7. Tod Robbins Says:

    I think Diaspora has the potential to be a gamer-changer, but I think you are correct in suggesting they’ll need to restructure with RDF standards (FOAF, etc.). Though, I’m excited about the alpha-builds people have put up thus far.

    http://github.com/diaspora/diaspora

  8. Ed Davies Says:

    —–BEGIN PGP SIGNED MESSAGE—–
    Hash: SHA1

    I think the biggest obstacle to decentralized social networks is that they’ll need to make heavy use of cryptography. Governments, even the most free and democratic ones, don’t really like cryptography much and only tolerate it at the moment because it’s not that widely used (other than for https). Anything which seems likely to make it widespread for peer-to-peer use will be frowned upon, I suspect.
    —–BEGIN PGP SIGNATURE—–
    Version: GnuPG v1.4.9 (GNU/Linux)

    iEYEARECAAYFAkzCuCoACgkQ5EfOQv4V18/N7wCbBJ0RWJlatr3kYfHR64JUVkUd
    npYAn3+46DQARigfgATQ7rJt9pbqviIl
    =dYdR
    —–END PGP SIGNATURE—–

  9. Tod Robbins Says:

    Ed,

    I think you are dead on with cryptography. With the recent trends against cryptography (for citizens that is) we have an interesting road ahead of us.


  10. I share your optimism for the web’s social framework to become increasingly decentralized.


  11. There are quite a few Open Source projects dealing with these issues:

    http://federatedsocialweb.net/wiki/Projects


  12. Don’t you think that the OpenGraph protocol is a step in just that direction—to distribute Facebook over the Web—even utilizing some of Linked Data’s technology (RDFa)?


  13. […] I ‘closed’ my Facebook account some years ago when Facebook announced that they would own all of the information/media that was uploaded to their site. I was convinced to start using Facebook again – about a year later. I was convinced by some old friends who were networking (catching up) on Facebook. So fast forward a few years and I have once again grown tired of Facebook… there must be something better? Well there is! I call it decentralized social networking. The tools, protocols and infrastructure for this already exist. I will talk about this more later. Until then… here is a warmer from Decentralized. […]


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