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.
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.
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.
Mozilla 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.
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.