Let’s Deep-Six Facebook and Do Open Source Social Networking Instead – Rebuttals

In this debate series for LinuxInsider, we’ve heard from Evan Prodromou, CEO of StatusNet, who put forth the case for an open, distributed, federated model for social networking in contrast to Facebook’s approach. We’ve also heard from Steven Bristol, partner and self-described “Chief Nerd” at Less Everything, who made the case for Facebook’s approach.

In this final installment in the debate series, the two will get the chance to rebut each other’s points.

We begin with Prodromou, CEO of StatusNet.

LinuxInsider: Steven Bristol contends the open, distributed federated approach to social networking doesn’t exist. If you want to connect with other social networks in a distributed model, which is currently nonexistent, the other networks each have to take a copy of your data to work, he says. He points out this is similar to the way Google OpenSocial works. What do you say?

Evan Prodromou:

That’s simply not the case. StatusNet alone has more than 25,000 public sites implementing distributed social networking. It integrates right now with sites with millions more users on Google Buzz, Posterous, and Tumblr.

We have examples of many distributed communications systems with loose coupling between servers — for example, the Web and email. There’s no reason to believe that social networking has to be different.

LIN: In the real world, you need the walled garden approach for social networking sites because, ultimately, there must be some way of making money, Bristol says.

Prodromou:

You can make money with distributed social networking either directly, by selling software or services, or with indirect methods like advertising or gathering marketing data. Distributed social networking lets more people make more money in more different ways.

Needless to say, people have other reasons to participate in social networking besides making money.

LIN: Something like Diaspora won’t work at all because the main data will sit on each user’s computer and, when the user goes offline, his or her friends can’t send them a message or interact with them, Bristol says.

Prodromou:

That’s not how most federated systems on the Internet work. With email, for example, servers stay on all the time, or most of the time, but clients can come and go. My blog stays up and readable 24×7 despite the fact that my phone and laptop are on and off all the time.

I think it’s entirely reasonable to expect Web-based distributed social networking to work the same way.

LIN: Even if the people behind Diaspora find a way to make it work, there will be lots of data duplication because the data will reside on every member’s PC, Bristol contends.

Prodromou:

That’s ridiculous. It’s not how email works, for example. You don’t have to keep a copy of my address book or my email inbox on your computer to send me a message. There’s some data duplication — we both have copies of this particular message, for example — but it’s nowhere near an impediment to adoption.

LIN: Further, someone will ultimately have to pay for the electricity to run the servers. Who will that be?

Prodromou:

As with everything else on the Internet, it’s a big mix: Companies and individuals, universities and non-profits, governments and informal groups.

LIN: Now Steven Bristol, partner and self-described “Chief Nerd” at Less Everything, rebuts Prodromou’s points.

Evan Prodromou, who advocates an open, distributed, federated approach in social networking, says this model could help alleviate the privacy problem social networking site face because it gives people and companies who belong to social networking sites a chance to be in full control of the data on these sites. However, it doesn’t absolutely prevent privacy abuse. Comment?

Steven Bristol:

It could be used to alleviate privacy concerns, but it won’t be used that way. Sooner or later, someone who offers services to people in the network will realize that she has employees to pay and will need to make money, and so she will “abuse” the privacy of her users in an effort to continue offering her services. Almost 100 percent of the time, altruism crumbles when one needs to feed one’s family.

LIN: Further, Prodromou contends the distributed federated network matches the shape of the Internet, being made up of a network of social networks linked together by simple open standards. This makes it robust and scalable, favors innovation and experimentation, and levels the playing field; it lets governments, individuals and non-profit organizations participate without being concerned about conflicts of interest, and is resistant to censorship and top-down control. What do you think?

Bristol:

Since when was the Internet anything like a federation of anything or network made up of other networks? Who cares about a conflict of interest? When people try to make something “good” for people, they end up making crap.

Look at the OLPC project. What a piece of unusable junk. When I bought one, I thought “I feel sorry for the poor African child who will get one of these. How will they get online so they can read the docs that tell them they have to download and update the networking drivers so they can get online?”

LIN: The database of members of an open distributed federated social network will be distributed in the same way the database of email users or blogs is distributed, Prodromou argues — people will keep lists on their own servers because they want or need to. This works, he says. For example, you can find any blog on the Internet even though nobody keeps a global database of blogs. What do you say?

Bristol:

The point is flawed. Google, among others, keeps a copy of every blog, for example. And not just one copy; Google keeps many duplicate copies around the world in many data centers. One would have to turn these personal databases into a P2P (peer-to-peer) network to get search to work. And if that happens, then the search is already a violation of privacy. And so it begins.

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