Steven Bristol is a partner and “chief nerd” at Less Everything, a company that focuses on building easy-to-use Ruby on Rail Web apps. The company created LovdbyLess, a free open source social network platform, after getting requests from customers. Users download a copy and are responsible for installing and maintaining the software and their own database of members.
Bristol will offer his own arguments in this LinuxInsider debate series exploring the potential of open source to answer the privacy questions surrounding major social networks.
LinuxInsider: Facebook has been battling users, prominent people in the high-tech field and privacy advocates over the question of privacy for years now, and the problem appears to have intensified. Some people contend Facebook’s approach to social networking is part of the problem. Could Facebook’s approach be one of the causes of its problems over privacy?
The reason Facebook’s having problems with privacy have nothing to do with whether it’s centralized or decentralized; it’s because Facebook has to make money. Facebook realized that even though it has a large mass of users, if it starts charging people for the service, subscribers will drop off.
Facebook has to get money from advertisers or investors; investors will at some point want to get their money back, so Facebook’s only real options are advertising or asking for charity.
Facebook got into trouble because it leveraged its subscriber base. But I don’t think it could ask for permission to do so, because if you ask people whether they want to see an ad in return for their service, most people would say no.
I think Facebook got into trouble beause it’s the first company to be large enough to make money selling user information. But the currency on the Internet is information; this is the future, and I don’t see another option.
LIN: Would taking an open distributed approach to social network help Facebook resolve the privacy problems it’s having?
I don’t think the open model actually exists. If you want to connect with those social networks in a distributed model, which doesn’t exist today, they have to take a copy of your data in order to work. For example, Google Social connects you to various social networks, and each of those takes a copy of your data.
Think about open source software. They talk about the software being free, but they mean free as in free liberty and not free as in beer; it’s free in that someone’s able to take it and do what they want with it, but anyone who runs a company has employees to pay.
The money has to come from somewhere, so the only two real models for business that have emerged anywhere in the world are the ad-supported model and the self-funded model.
LIN: Would the distributed, federated approach be better than the walled garden approach?
I think it’s the thought that once you’re in Facebook or MySpace, going to another social network means starting over again, and in that sense, they’re walled gardens. In the real world, what else would it be?
It’s not like we have some sort of benevolent dictatorship that has created the best social network for all of its subjects and we’re all members of that social network and it’s very open; a network where, if someone else decides to make something new and different, all they have to do is click some button and they’d be transported into this magic realm.
Look, Linus Torvalds, who wrote Linux and is still its main developer, works for a foundation. His salary, which is substantial, as I understand it, comes from the support of all kinds of companies donating to the foundation. So the guy who created and wrote the biggest open source software in the history of man gets paid to do it. If you cut off the foundation, he’s going to have to go to Apple or some other company and work on Linux in the evenings.
The bottom line is, everyone has to make income, and you can’t get away from that in this world.
LIN: What about something like Diaspora, where users each have a personal Web server that sits on their computers and stores all their information and shares it with friends?
It doesn’t work at all because the main data is on your computer. Say you and I are friends, we both sign up and friend each other, and when you go offline, I can’t send you a message or interact with you online, if it’s true that the data only resides on your system.
Even if they do find a way to make it work, there will be lots of data duplication going on because the data will reside on everyone’s machine. Also, ultimately, someone has to pay for the electricity for the servers. Who’s going to do that — investors, subscribers or advertisers?