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.

This morning, I gave the keynote address (my slides) at RuleML 2009. I assumed the audience would be fairly familiar with rule systems and rule technologies, but not necessarily with RIF, the Semantic Web in general, or my sense of the future of the Semantic Web (for which RIF is important).

Those slides may be boring for some of you. The interesting new bits:

  1. I made a new diagram for the RIF dialects. During the talk, I presented it as a successive reveal: the chaos of rule system features, the BLD grouping, the PRD grouping, and the Core intersection. Here’s the final slide:

    Venn diagram of rule system elements, grouped into RIF profiles

  2. I wanted to convey that the Semantic Web means real change, and I wanted emotional impact, so I took a shotgun approach and enumerated a list of likely data sources that was big enough to have some surprises for most folks; then I moved into a long list of things you could do with that data. Some things on the list were boring (having impact only by showing how long the list is), but some got the desired wide eyes and shocked sounds as people realized this just might happen. I think it went over well.

    My list of types of data we’ll be seeing:

    • From producers: product information
    • From sellers: product and service offerings
    • Customer support (instructions, upgrades, …)
    • Social network (who you trust, who interests you)
    • Personal information shared with friends
    • Public records (financial, legal, political, …)
    • Science (medical, environmental, economic, …)
    • News, Blogs, Public photos, videos
    • Event listings (performances, meetings)
    • Review, opinions, product experiences, preferences
    • Personal location, location history
    • Financial transactions

    Which led into my general scenario: you’re in a store about to buy something, but first you scan it with your phone and look up a little more information about it. What might you look up?

    • Its price at other stores, nearby
    • Its price for delivery, and how how long you’d have to wait
    • Maybe: where it was made, and under what conditions
    • Is it’s producer a good corporate citizen?
    • Does its producer agree with your political views (uh oh)
    • How many houses does its CEO own?
    • Did your spouse/housemate just buy some? Or something like it?
    • How your friends feel about this product
    • How Consumer Reports (or some such service) reviewed it
    • Product liability suits
    • Endorsements
    • Maybe: Payment for Endorsements
    • For electronics: compatibility information
    • For mechanical items: How repairable is it? MTTF, MTTR
    • For food: nutritional information, health benefits and risks
    • Demographics of this brand, these products

That’s all for now. I saw the Bellagio Fountain from my 29th floor
hotel room late last night, but I’d like to see it up close.

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