Facebook Trouble (And What We Can Do About It)

I’ve been registered at Facebook since my semester abroad in Australia in 2007 – mainly to keep in touch with a few people I’ve met there. Truth is, I’m not much of a user and I never was. I post the occasional status/mood message, comment on some people’s messages/photos and there are probably ~ 20 photos of me online (that I know of). I’m a member of probably a dozen groups/fan pages and there’s no information on my profile that I wouldn’t tell a stranger on the street – I don’t think, knowing who my girlfriend is or my date of birth is an intrusion in terms of privacy. And I don’t play Farmville, MafiaWars and whatnot, and have set pretty much all my privacy settings to “Only my friends”.

Still, I’m having trouble accepting Facebook’s latest changes in terms of privacy (btw. there’s a cool visualization of what has changed in Facebook’s default privacy settings since 2005). This whole connecting your profile to websites is just scary. Not so much because of myself but because of other people – people not having the right sensitivity regarding online privacy and/or who – due to their lack of technical skills – can’t navigate through Facebook’s privacy settings or properly understand them.

Calls for an Open Alternative

Some people are calling for a change – for example, Wired magazine posted an article calling for an open alternative to Facebook a couple of days ago and it seems that some people have already been working on fairly interesting stuff. There’s a distributed social network named Diaspora, for example, which looks promising and there’s also OneSocialWeb – both featured in another article on Wired magazine.

Do I think these projects (and there are certainly others in the makes as well) are interesting? Hell yeah. Do I think they’ll be able to become serious competitors for Facebook? Not really. Reasoning? There’s two things that will stand in the way: people’s ignorance regarding privacy and general problems about Facebook, and people’s adamant cry for activities offering instant gratification.

Facebook Doesn’t Have a Lot of Features

Under the covers, Facebook really doesn’t offer a lot: I’d guess the core features could be implemented in a few weeks even with a small (but capable) development team. Even scaling shouldn’t be that much of a problem before reaching a certain (big) amount of users.

The real USP lies in the Facebook platform, providing a possibility for companies to offer Facebook users their (mini) applications. There are lots of games and more or less funny tools, offering users a little distraction from their work/studying/whatever.

Facebook’s core features actually have become a by-product of its application platform: People would use the apps without the Wall, Poking or Photo Albums, but most likely not vice-versa. Looking at current Facebook statistics – though they may be forged – may confirm this: Apparently, 70% of all Facebook users engage with the platform regularly in some way.

As Long as People Like to be Insulted by Dr. Cox, (Open) Competitors Don’t Have a Stinkin’ Chance

It all boils down to a simple equation: People like instant gratification through applications offered through Facebook by companies. Companies are creating Facebook apps to get a hold of people’s personal data. Thus: If a platform doesn’t offer people’s personal data, companies won’t write applications for it and people won’t use it because there aren’t any apps.

So as long as people like to be insulted by Dr. Cox (of Scrubs) on a daily basis, be offered free advice by the Wise Nut, nourish their crops in FarmVille or rob their friends in MafiaWars, social networks wanting to compete with Facebook will have to offer something similar to their users. Since companies don’t develop free applications for shits and giggles, I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

So What Can We Do?

As I’ve outlined, I fear that Facebook not only is here to stay but also that competitors don’t really have a chance to attract a relevant market share any time soon. And I don’t see global online laws being established anytime soon – so Mark Zuckerberg and others will be able to continue executing their criminal plans (yes, I think some of the things Facebook does are criminal!). So all we can do for the time being is damage limitation and try avoiding collateral damage.

I think, our duty as tech-savvy people is to inform and maybe educate our less tech-savvy friends and family about online privacy in general and Facebook’s privacy issues in particular. We can tell them to take down all profile information that isn’t absolutely necessary and not join stupid groups or fan pages anymore. We can inform them about alternatives – why not put pictures on Flickr, travels on Dopplr or TripIt etc.? We can take a look at emerging projects like Diaspora and OneSocialWeb, and in due time try convincing people to switch – even though there might not be FarmVille, MafiaWars or Which Vegetable Are You (I was broccoli, btw.).

And we can hope for Mark Zuckerberg taking it a notch too far, resulting in either conviction (he’d certainly deserve it) or huge amounts of people leaving Facebook for good (he’d deserve that even more).

UPDATE: Don’t forget to uncheck the checkbox at http://www.facebook.com/settings/?tab=privacy&section=applications&field=instant_personalization so at least Facebook’s partners don’t get access to your information as soon as you just visit their website coming from Facebook.