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Could I disagree with Tim B-Lee?

November 23, 2010

Click here to read the Guardian article

The Guardian just reported Tim Berners-Lee’s concern that the web could be evolving into something less desirable.

He suggests that Facebook and similar are creating walled ‘gardens’ around information that doesn’t really belong to them.

The sense is, of course, that a Facebook “friend” can’t easily be contacted any other way, unless you establish enough of a friendship for them to give you another email address or maybe twitter name.

For some this just isn’t a problem. The news that Facebook will offer all the messaging you need will be welcome.  On one of our courses at Greenwich, we read about just how involved people are with online environments – look at Edward Castronova (and here) or Danah Boyd. The we realise our students are even more committed, but not wholly defined by that commitment.

But this potentially ‘one way’ street of data, at first, seems to be a problem. I’m told. though I’ve never tried it, that you can’t easily extract your data from Facebook. So whatever you’ve contributed belongs there – or (again according to some) it belongs to Facebook itself.

But the ethics and law of communication are always fraught. The law of copyright doesn’t help much and the principles of data protection boil down to a check box (“Do you agree we can do anything we want to with your data? Tick here or don’t use our service”).

Okay, so we all enter into the contract and try and manage our privacy settings, if we understand them.

The point here though is to think of where we are now and the direction we’re going.  Facebook  and others (some commentators have mentioned the closed nature of the Apple platform) thrive on third parties creating ‘apps’. You all know what they are.

So the resolution of this is that somewhere out there a clever little so-and-so is writing an app that does what Facebook does but without getting sucked into someone else’s plan for world domination. This (imaginary) app may simply set up ghost Facebook accounts and dip in to find people; connect; present you with an interface to control your involvement and, at the press of a button delete any evidence of your having been there. It’s theoretically possible for the app to select and implement a  nom de souris for you – that you needn’t even know.

Ah, you say, but Facebook would then block that app. Yes, they would.

And our public spirited developer would be happy to create a playground where all his apps could happily associate, each one with its secret handshake for people you know.

But, but, but. Social networks go beyond people you know already. They go to people who know people you know. These are formally or informally introduced to you by intermediary friends (As Linked in does it its slightly clunky, big brother way) so, you could grown networks in this new site.

The point is that, unlike Facebook, this new (Faceless book?) would be a distributed network such that no owner could have a view of the whole or even extract information unless it was freely give.

Problem? yes. The same one that Facebook itself has, and will have in the future. The real reason why they (and every other network and even the Times Online) build walls around customers is that they want to be able to generate revenue.  make it free (or virtually free) at the point of entry and then sell the ad space is one way. Sell subscriptions is another (Mr Murdoch wants to do both, greedy b~).

Interestingly Mozilla, that beacon of useability and freedom have announced they may be launching a mobile app store.  There could be a market for an app that does exactly what Facebook does – and even recruits from Facebook, but without holding onto any of your data. And think of the incentives for Google and others to show they are more open than FB.

So, who would pay for a Facelessbook account? Hands up? Or you could email me. Or I’ll see you on Facebook.

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