Using  federation to fight and win over Facebook is possible. But it will take time. Here are two ideas for how to start strengthening the open web right now.

What is the allure of Facebook? Why is everyone using it (including me), even though it’s clearly bad for our online freedom and privacy (read: bad for the world)? There are a ton of features which makes Facebook almost impossible to escape, like

  • «Everyone» is there, making it easy to keep in touch with old and new friends
  • There’s a group for anything
  • It’s dead simple to create new groups, making it ideal for collaboration
  • A simple chat function lets you see if someone is online and start talking with them right away, straight from the tab in your browser that you already have open
  • Get all the latest news from your favorite blogs, web comics and everything else in one place by the click of a «Like»-button.

And all of this is available anywhere, not just where you have your chat client etc.

These are some of the functionalities we need to replicate if we want people to move away from Facebook. In many ways Facebook are what the internet should’ve been from the very beginning: You should’ve always been able to start collaborating with anyone; friend, acquaintance or anonymous unknown person. You should’ve always been able to tell people you meet to add you online to keep in touch. In a way you always have, but Facebook made it all so much simpler. But they didn’t just make it simpler, they locked it up, data mined it and let NSA in to look around too. That’s why it’s high time the open meadow of the internet takes these features back from the walled garden of Facebook.

The recent revelations about NSA and GCHQ spying and the fact that Facebook don’t let you see everything shared by those you subscribe to («Like») unless they pay for you to see it should make it clearer than ever that change is desperately needed.

I think all of the above-mentioned features will some day be perfected by federated social networks. But while we wait, I have an idea for how to ween people off Facebook slowly by starting with two of the features mentioned: Updates and chat.

As I said: The free and open web has had these features long before Facebook existed. It’s called Jabber/XMPP (chat) and RSS and Atom feeds (updates). But it’s all just too much hassle. You have to know about it, register an account, choose between dozens of applications and web apps, etc. In the case of chat you’ve also had to get your friends to use the same protocol as you. That’s a lot of steps, but still it was quite popular. Until Facebook came along and made it all so much easier.

The challenge then is to make it at least as simple to use these features outside of Facebook as inside. Here’s how I think we can do it: By using the browser. I’m sure there are some extensions out there doing all this already. But that’s just not good enough. It needs to be built into the browser to make it easy and visible enough.

Updates

Remember when you opened a new tab in your browser and there was nothing there? Opera understood that this was a waste of space and opportunity and introduced the now ubiquitous Speed Dial. They where on the right track, but missed the real opportunity. Opera has recently started exploiting the potential of this better with the new Discover feature. But even they are still not anywhere near using this «new tab» area as a replacement for the Facebook wall, which it obviously could be. How?

Well, Mozilla was already halfway there when they introduced live bookmarks years ago: Click a button and subscribe to the feed of the website you’re on straight from the browser, no external feed reader needed. Good idea, but terribly executed. Here’s how it works, which is, unfortunately, also a list of what’s wrong with it:

  • It was a tiny icon and no clue was given on how to use it. (Now it’s been dropped by default, but you can easily get it back)
  • Clicking it brings up a new, confusing page.
  • This page has an even more confusing drop down list of options.
  • Upon choosing Live Bookmarks you’re given a new, somewhat confusing choice of where to place it.
  • After this you have to find and click on your new Live Bookmark every time you want to know if it’s been updated.

In comparison, here’s how the same process works in Facebook:

  • Click the big button called «Like».
  • Get updates automatically delivered straight to your face. (But only some of them, unless the content creator pays Facebook)

See the difference? See why no one used Live Bookmarks while tons of people live their online lives within Facebook?

It needs to be just as simple in your browser: One click on a big «subscribe» button while you’re on your favorite site (which offers an RSS/Atom feed, meaning most sites) and you’re done. Then, when you open a new tab, the Speed Dial has been replaced with a Facebook Wall-esque display of all the latest updates from all sites you subscribe to. A picture plus the first paragraph or two of text from news sites and blogs, the image from the web comics, the video from the YouTube or Vimeo channels, etc.

Most podcatchers won’t just tell you to go out there and find the podcasts you’d like to subscribe to, but offers you a searchable directory of popular podcasts. The same way the browser should also present you with a directory of sites you might like to subscribe to. Of course this directory should be online, available to all browsers, and completely Free/Open, as to not just help the biggest blogs and news sites get even bigger while yet again excluding the smaller players. In these respects it should be a lot like the podcast directory at gpodder.net. But crucially: This directory should just be an addition to the subscribe button in the browser, not the only way to subscribe to feeds.

Chat

You know how when you start Thunderbird for the first time it asks you if you’d like to configure it to use an existing e-mail account, of if you’d like to register a new one? The browser should do the same, only with XMPP instead of e-mail. After this a small chat box will be displayed in the bottom right of your browser at all times. It will function just like Facebook’s chat box: Expand to show you your online friends when you click on it, and open new conversations in boxes to the left. It is important to find a way to get people to sign up for a Free/Open XMPP server, but since Facebook chat is based on XMPP you can get all your Facebook friends here too. This means that using this feature has great utility from the start, and that it will greatly reduce the need for many to have Facebook constantly open.

Skjermbilde av TalkillaMozilla is already working on something very similar to this, Mozilla Talkilla. It looks really nice, but so far it doesn’t let you use your existing XMPP account or help you set up a new one. It also only lets you add friends using your Google account. We need to find some solution to the problem «let people find their friends, no matter what service they are using». If not everyone will keep doing the easiest thing: Integrating their services with only Google, Facebook and a few other huge players, which means their monopolistic stranglehold will just keep growing. And that is the exact thing I want to fight with my proposal.

It seems to me that Mozilla’s Social API experimentations are exactly what I’m looking for, except that where it leads us is the exact opposite of the future I want. If I understand it correctly it will just help the walled gardens of Facebook and others to extend into your browser and get even more power over you. Instead we need to use these functionalities in a way that facilitates moving away from those walled gardens without losing out. I dearly hope that Mozilla will keep developing the Social API, but make it vendor independent and use it to liberate us instead of helping the walled gardens ensnare us even more.

Set your phasers to cloudify

If you find these ideas intriguing, you might still be skeptical as to the probability of them making even the smallest of dents in Facebook’s stranglehold over online updates and IM. One reason might be the focus on the browser. How can I use this if I can’t have all my data everywhere?

The solution seems to be to make an online account that saves all of this info and makes it available to any browser where you’re logged in. Mozilla is already working on integrating your identity into your browser. Mozilla Persona is the beginning: An online account you can use to log in to other sites, like The Times Crossword, Sloblog or Born This Way Foundation. Why not have your Persona account also handle your subscription list and logs?

I am not proposing to give all the power from Facebook over to Mozilla and just change which company NSA contacts. It’s of crucial importance that none of this acts as a way to lock you into one specific browser vendor or company, and that your privacy is protected. Mozilla Persona is Free and Open Source all the way down, which is great, but not quite good enough. You need to be able to choose your own provider and switch from one (say Mozilla) to another (say Google or your own server) whenever you want. So Mozilla Persona should just be one of many options for your online account. In addition there could be Opera’s and Chrome’s sync features, ownCloud, FreedomBox, and many others. Hey, why not just have all the info in a .txt you can put anywhere, like Dropbox, SpiderOak, etc. Still all the info needs to be in one place at a time. Having your subscriptions behind one login and your chat logs behind another is one unnecessary hindrance too many.

But now we’re starting to tread into the geeky, complicated territory which allowed Facebook to come along with it’s simplicity and «take over the internet» in the first place.

In finding a solution to the cloud challenge of my suggestion we must tread lightly. How do we make it simple enough while preserving the choice, freedom and security we want? I’m not sure. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t start implementing the non-cloud features in the browsers right away. As I said: Mozilla and Opera has already done some of this. Now I hope they will do the rest, and get other browser vendors to join them. Or perhaps someone else will do it? I don’t care as long as it’s done and done in an Open way.

To summarize

Facebook is taking over the web and we need to save it. The issue is too complex to have one solution. The most obvious solution is federated social networks, but it’s also a very long term solution. We need more, sooner. One of these thousand small solutions should be to take back chat and subscriptions, by making them dead simple to use for everyone straight from the browser.

Let’s make the Free and Open web into what it is, and was supposed to be: The best place to keep updated and talk with your friends. Then let’s take it from there.

If you’ve read this far I’d very much appreciate a comment bellow. It also means that you’re quite interested in this topic, and so you should read my blogpost Think like the internet – Or how to fight Facebook and win. Thank you!

Pixel Uruk-Hai by Nick Gains.

Børge A. Roum

Jeg heter børge og jeg har blogget siden mai 2004. Først og fremst om internett, politikk og rettigheter, men også om mye annet. Du bør ta en titt i arkivet og følge meg på Twitter. I arbeidstida driver jeg med sosiale medier for Miljøpartiet De Grønne. Lær mer om meg på forteller.net.

Likte du det du nettopp leste? Abonner på bloggen på Twitter; @fortellerblogg, eller via mail:


 

  • Sasha K-S

    Thanks for writing this. It’s something I’ve wondered about for quite a long time, the love/hate relationship with FB, and how in the world to create a replacement without massively expensive data centers. This is a great start, I encourage you to shamelessly spread this article far and wide!

  • Standard8

    Hi, just to note, that Talkilla is still in early stages of development, and as a result, various things definitely aren’t finalised.

    Google contacts is just the simplest way to get some contacts into the system, and the presence is really basic who’s on the server stuff.

    That doesn’t mean these are the only ways that we’re going to allow – but they do let us get a baseline system with which we can test the core elements of Talkilla and extend based on those. Please keep an eye on the project, there’s certainly a lot more coming!

  • http://forteller.net/ Børge / forteller

    Thank you very much! I’ll try :)

  • http://forteller.net/ Børge / forteller

    Hi, I’m very glad to see someone working on Talkilla here, commenting! Would you say that Talkilla can become this truly open challenger to FB chat that I envision?

  • Craig

    «In many ways Facebook are what the internet should’ve been from the very beginning»

    What a truly moronic thing to say.

  • http://forteller.net/ Børge / forteller

    Why? You noticed what ways I was talking about, and that I ended with harsh criticism of Facebook, right? «You should’ve always been able to start collaborating with anyone; friend, acquaintance or anonymous unknown person. You should’ve always been able to tell people you meet to add you online to keep in touch. In a way you always have, but Facebook made it all so much simpler.»

    How is it moronic to say that the internet should’ve made it this simple to collaborate and keep in touch with people from the very beginning?

  • Need It Now

    Thanks for writing this article. I have been waiting for a long time for some kind of federated social network to take off with momentum (not isolated pods that people don’t want to use). I hope this gets more support from Mozilla and other organizations that are for an Open Internet.

  • DppleGanger

    great write-up, I hope this idea gains momentum in the development communities!

  • Ben Werdmuller

    Great post. Worth mentioning that the Firefox Social API does some of these things on a per-site basis: https://developer.mozilla.org/en-US/docs/Social_API

  • http://forteller.net/ Børge / forteller

    Thanks! My other blogpost is more about that kind of thing: http://blogg.forteller.net/2011/think-internet/

  • http://forteller.net/ Børge / forteller

    Yes, I did mention that ;)

    From the post: «It seems to me that Mozilla’s Social API experimentations
    are exactly what I’m looking for, except that where it leads us is the
    exact opposite of the future I want. If I understand it correctly it
    will just help the walled gardens of Facebook and others to extend into
    your browser and get even more power over you. Instead we need to use
    these functionalities in a way that facilitates moving away from those
    walled gardens without losing out. I dearly hope that Mozilla will keep
    developing the Social API, but make it vendor independent and use it to
    liberate us instead of helping the walled gardens ensnare us even more.»

  • Mikael «MMN-o» Nordfeldth

    Aye! Regarding this, I am already experimenting with Mozilla’s Social API (and have been off and on – mostly off – the last year) for GNU social. The web is most certainly not where any revolution is going to happen, but wherever it is we should probably make sure there’s an HTTP gateway to it at least. Otherwise most lusers will fail to even discover the beauty of it all.

    (psst, why Disqus? ;))

  • Guest

    Great post.

  • Jeena

    Mozilla already has the possibility to sync data between your firefox instances, either via their server, or if you wish you can just install one of the implementations of the Sync protocol out there (I only was able to find one open source but read about other people having implemented it on their own too). This sync server could sync your RSS OOPML file in addition to what it is doing now already like history, bookmarks, passwords, etc.

  • Ben Werdmuller

    So you did! Excellent. I disagree with you though – the Social API *is* vendor independent. For example, I’m using it with my open source platform, idno, which also supports decentralized social communications.

  • HC

    Wouldn’t a fb group be handy and ironic to talk about this?
    I wonder if a good solution wouldn’t be for users to host their own data (on rapsberry pi like computers). They could have a gpg key for each of their friends, so that messages, notifications, etc, could be sent sent encrypted. What do you think about that?

  • http://forteller.net/ Børge / forteller

    > Wouldn’t a fb group be handy and ironic to talk about this?

    Hehe. Yes, I guess it would. An alternative could be a subreddit.

    > What do you think about that?

    I think that’s a great idea! Eben Moglen started working on just this with the FreedomBox Foundation, but it seems like that work has halted, unfortunately. I wrote about this in my other blog post about federated social media: http://blogg.forteller.net/2011/think-internet/

  • HC

    Nice, thank you for the reference.

  • gfarwell

    There is a Chrome extensions, it’s called Barc and let’s you communicate on any webpage. You can use Facebook/Twitter or make your own account

    ​https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/barc/lkledilgabpellhganjgplgemmoadagh?utm_source=gmail

  • http://www.silverbucket.net/ Nick Jennings

    I agree with a lot of your assessments, which is why I’ve been working in the unhosted/nobackend world for the past year, specifically on Sockethub and apps which use both Sockethub and remoteStorage. Hopefully soon we’ll be able to bootstrap ourselves off these platforms without giving up social interaction :)

  • Pingback: Activist social media suicide and its prevention - Home - OMN()

  • Patrick Cloke (clokep)

    I don’t want to nitpick against certain phrases you’ve used…but one of your concepts is pretty wrong: «It is important to find a way to get people to sign up for a Free/Open XMPP server, but since Facebook chat is based on XMPP you can get all your Facebook friends here too.» This seems to imply that by using XMPP on a free server you’ll be magically able to talk to your Facebook friends – this is not true at all. Facebook chat does not use an XMPP backend server and is NOT federated (just like Google Talk is doing now, as well). There is only an XMPP gateway that allows you to connect to their network, these are very different things.

    Additionally, my understanding of Talkilla is it’s going to use it’s own protocol and not implement XMPP, but there are plenty of free/open XMPP clients, some even that use the web browser (if you like that kind of thing, personally I find it annoying to type in a box that holds twenty characters). There have been a few «XMPP clients with collaboration in the browser», by the way, https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/sameplace-instant-messenger/ is the one that I know of off the top of my head. https://air.mozilla.org/product-design-at-mozilla/ (skip to 25:30) also includes a demo of integrating some of the chat code (includeing XMPP) from Instantbird/Thunderbird into a Firefox extension.

    Anyway, I guess my point is that some of these ideas have been tried a bit, but the bigger issue (in my mind) is that most people just don’t care! Facebook is SO easy…you need to make something even easier to get them to switch off of it.

  • http://dsthode.info/ Damián Serrano Thode

    Very interesting article. I would also like to see a more open web, and I think that Persona might be the way to go in the open social space.
    There are things that need to be defined in the protocol beyond login and session management, like social subscriptions, chat interactions and maybe file sharing.
    I think that this kind of things would have a place in a protocol that tries to become your personal image on the web, and would really like to see these implemented someday.