Brendon Walsh

And This Time I Mean It


Yes indeed, it's that time again. Time to get all stand-offish and quit Facebook and vow never to return. This will be the third time I have deleted my account entirely. There a couple reasons why this time is different though and I wanted to explain why this time it might just stick.

The Story So Far

Facebook has been making privacy mistakes for a long time now. And in the past I have deleted my account and abandoned the service for months at a time. Yet each time I'll get pestered by friends and family members (and once, a really cute girl at a club) to join Facebook again so they can interact with me through the service. Apparently, email, IM and text messaging are all passé when compared to writing on someone's wall on Facebook.

So each time I quit, I am beckoned back. Of course, the privacy issues are always in the back of my mind but in reality I'm not all that concerned with my own data. I really don't share that much about myself on Facebook. There are no tagged pictures of me or applications associated with my account and nothing ever shared that I wouldn't also mind having made public.

What disturbs me is that I am an accessory to the breaches of trust against all of my friends on Facebook. Not that I am concerned that I am inadvertently sharing their data through other applications because I'm not. But being a part of the service and adding value to Facebook and therefore encouraging others to be a part of the service as well is enough guilt for me.

The Alternatives

This is the tricky part. Once you quit, how else do you get that same value back through another service? There are some really small Facebook clone projects out there and the Diaspora guys are really getting a lot of press lately, but so far it is just vaporware.

I've been asking myself what it would take to really sell any of these alternatives to someone else. What makes Facebook so enticing and important besides the fact that everyone you know and their pet has an account there?

In the early days, I remember Facebook was our online address book. Facebook was the place to make sure I had everyone's latest email or IM address and not much else. Fast-forward 6 years and now you can ask anyone what makes Facebook fun and they'll tell you any number of things. "I like sharing photos with friends", "I prefer Facebook's inbox over email", "Where else can I visit other people's virtual farms?".

This is a major problem. How does someone sell people on an alternative when Facebook is practically the internet to so many of it's users? What features does a Facebook alternative need to have in order to make it just as functional and even more appealing? I'm not exactly sure. I plan on running a small poll with my Facebook friends to find out what they need on Facebook.

My Alternative

In the meantime, while I wait for Diaspora to start up, I've registered and I plan on making that a ground-zero project for duplicating information on my Facebook profile. I'm not yet sure how I'll manage privacy and accept requests for that private information though. I've been trying to work out a way to use OpenID or something similar for friends to prove who they say they are without actually needing to know what OpenID is.

All I want is a place where I can share a public face and a private face. Where friends can freely share contact details and perhaps even status updates. As for photos and video sharing, I'd rather offload that to a third party like Flickr and Vimeo to handle that. I imagine there must be a way to cleverly make use of their APIs to integrate into my own service. This is where OpenID would really come in handy.

Thoughts on Diaspora

Diaspora sounds like a great idea to geeks. Everyone use their own server, or seed as they call them, and your data is always controlled by you while you just let other people have access to certain things through their own servers. It all sounds well and good until you realize that normal people don't have their own web server.

I think the real winner will be a service similar to StatusNet (formerly Laconica) where there are several public and private servers spread out across the web and information is federated and shared between them based on individual user privacy settings. This way you could have a server that is dedicated to each group of friends or family or even region and not have to worry about whether or not your friends are all willing to manage their own web server. Of course, this is where encryption becomes really important as the webmaster holds all of the keys.

It's certainly not an easy problem to solve, and I'll be glad if Diaspora ever gets started so I can fork their code and build on it. Though, with over $170,000 in donations, I'm not sure we'll see anyone lifting a finger just yet.