Rise of the Facebook-Killers

At the pinnacle of the social network's success, its critics are busy building its replacements

By now, the story of the beginnings of Facebook has been retold so many times that it has taken on the patina of myth. A lonely nerd who got no respect at school, young Zuckerberg found a golden ticket, a dream of an interconnected world. In order to realize this dream, he had first to defeat the grasping and socially privileged Winklevoss twins, which he did through cunning and trickery.

Several books and an Aaron Sorkin movie have told and retold this tale, though elements of this legendary account remain hotly disputed. But the truth is that this saga is irrelevant. What matters about Facebook is not its origin story, but rather what happened after. Today, Facebook reports annual profits of $1 billion. Two weeks ago, Facebook filed the necessary paperwork for an initial public offering of $5 billion, valuing the company somewhere between $75 and $100 billion. The numbers are staggering. By way of comparison, when Google went public in 2004, it was valued at just $23 billion and raised $1.9 billion from investors.

Where does such a stupefyingly large valuation come from? Not the users, obviously. We don't pay a dime to maintain our profiles. And while Facebook is admirably "sticky," in the parlance of online advertisers, that's not enough to justify it either.

A longtime champion of the free-software movement, Columbia Law School professor Eben Moglen predicts Facebook will be extinct in a matter of months.
Emily Berl
A longtime champion of the free-software movement, Columbia Law School professor Eben Moglen predicts Facebook will be extinct in a matter of months.
An activist and programmer, Sam Boyer is helping to build the Federated General Assembly, a decentralized network designed for the Occupy movement.
Emily Berl
An activist and programmer, Sam Boyer is helping to build the Federated General Assembly, a decentralized network designed for the Occupy movement.

What makes Facebook so valuable isn't the Web ads it serves up, but rather the unprecedented amount of information it has about its users, which it can then sell to third parties. Business intelligence—the data a company can scrape together about its customers—is the fastest-growing segment of enterprise computing. Major tech companies are snapping up companies that make business-intelligence software. But the software that does the data mining is only a tool—what really matters is how much data you have. And Facebook has a lot.

"Imagine what it is to run code like that on top of a database with billions of people's lives in it," Moglen says. "The business-intelligence layer of Facebook—the layer nobody sees—that's where the whole $100 billion future supposedly is."

Some argue that the age of social media has so fundamentally reordered our social lives that privacy as we know it is obsolete, a concept increasingly without relevance or utility in our lives. Moglen says that's bullshit.

"Privacy isn't an antiquated idea," Moglen says. "That's like saying fresh air over the Grand Canyon is antiquated when you own a copper smelter. We know it's wrong to invade people's privacy. We haven't gotten rid of the laws that say it's a crime to look in people's windows or steal their personal information."

The problem, Moglen argues, is that Facebook's usurpation of privacy isn't an individual matter that single users can decide to make their peace with. It's ecological: What you share and what you click on affects what Facebook knows about your friends, too. And in the aggregate, all this personal information helps build a machine that can know the past and present and make good guesses about the future, a machine whose insights are incredibly valuable to everyone from corporations to state-intelligence services.

Still, conventional investor wisdom holds that privacy issues won't threaten the Facebook juggernaut. As disturbing as the company's track record on privacy is, the backlash hasn't managed to slow Facebook's meteoric rise to 800 million users. As tech editor Rafe Needleman wrote recently, "Facebook's privacy flubs will not amount to much, as long as the company keeps changing its policies so frequently that nobody can keep up with what Facebook is actually sending to other users and advertisers."

That might be true so far in the United States, but there are early signs in Europe that Facebook's privacy shell game might be breaking down.

Max Schrems, a 24-year-old Austrian law student, has launched a three-year campaign against Facebook's privacy incursions, using Europe's stricter protections to exert a surprising amount of leverage on the company.

Schrems's campaign has resulted in pending legislation that would force Facebook to let its users opt out of its data collection entirely and force the company to delete the data it has collected on a user if asked to.

The legislation might be the least of Facebook's problems. The publicity could be worse. Schrems also used an Irish court to force Facebook to turn over all the information it had collected on him. What he got back was 1,222 pages of data, including information he'd never agreed to let them have and some that he had deleted. Under pressure, Facebook has pledged to European regulators that it will change its ways. But 40,000 people have already followed Schrems's lead and asked Facebook Ireland for their own records. In Europe at least, Facebook's users are becoming increasingly aware that Facebook is first and foremost a surveillance mechanism, and they don't like it. If that realization spreads, Facebook's most precious asset—its users—could stampede and flee to a safer network. For that to happen, the safer network, decentralized—or, in social networking parlance, "federated"—will have to exist. But federated networks aren't far off.

Sitting in the room that February night when Moglen voiced his call to action, four young NYU students—Daniel Grippi, Maxwell Salzberg, Raphael Sofaer, and Ilya Zhitomirskiy—took up his challenge.

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45 comments
Steve Moyer
Steve Moyer

Time to put Facebook down with extreme prejudice. They should be call FASCISTbook.

James J. Pond
James J. Pond

I am so over Facebook, Google, and quite possibly you tube too. I am not a commercial and I do not appreciate how corporations are conducting business online.

Bpatphilly10
Bpatphilly10

Yes, great article. It is time to bring privacy rights issues to the forefront of our technology discussions.

Martin Farrent
Martin Farrent

Friendica actually has a Facebook connector that works - integrating FB contacts in your stream. That might sound like a compromise in terms of overcoming Facebook's quasi-monopoly... but it tears down the garden walls, which can only be a good thing. Additionally, Friendica integrates a whole range of other networks and protocols: Twitter, Diaspora (seamless), identi.ca/status.net, even email.

Terrycart
Terrycart

That is not true to say something like that, Facebook can definitely be better but not go extinct. That is really blow his own trumpet.

Martin Farrent
Martin Farrent

The article fails to mention Friendica, increasingly recognised as the most powerful, stable and genuinely decentralised Facebook alternative. Server installation is almost as easy as for WordPress - so you can run your own and control your database completely.

Also, Friendica is easily the most integrative of the decentralised solutions, allowing seamless communication with contacts from Diaspora and integration of your Facebook stream, too. Apart from that, it connects to Twitter, Wordpress, status.net and a few others - and will even integrate good old email into your social networking. It's free as in beer and free as in speech and really worth a try.

MGF
MGF

The author of this article should have taken a good look at Friendica, widely recognised as the most powerful and stable of the alternatives to Facebook. Unlike other solutions, it is truly decentralised, running on small servers (almost as easy to install as Wordpress). It integrates a host of other networks from Diaspora to Facebook and is updated/enhanced very regularly. You can read more here: http://friendica.com

Sarino
Sarino

Remember MySpace? Facebook is just a modified, and perhaps more dynamic, version of that. Why it caught on like it did I'l never understand, I've never had the desire or time to set up a Facebook profile, and now that I know how it makes it's money I am glad I didn't! I think the biggest problem with this site, and other such sites like Twitter and fubar, etc., is calling them "social networking". They are anything but "social", the are as unsocial as humanly possible. While I agree with the story that a useful function Facebook can serve is to find an old friend, or someone you knew for some reason, that you lost touch with and would like to find, there is nothing "social" about staring at a computer monitor and typing on a keyboard. Calling Facebook a "social network" is like calling a jail "a government subsidized sustinence and housing resource"! It has been proven many times over with experiments on animals that if a living organism (people) does not have physical touch and interaction with other such organism's it suffers mentally, and the results can be very bad. If anything Facebook and the like have destroyed social values. Very few people get out and interact with people now as compared to 20 or 30 years ago. After work or the trip to the store they go home and get on their computer, or watch their tv, or both, and any 'contact' happens through technology. I know in the town I live in the number of people you see 'out and about' during the evenings and nights is about 1/2 of what it was in the 80's, and the population is about 50 or 60 percent more. There are times when the number of people you see somewhere on the weekends is less than what it was during the week in the 80's. And the biggest percentage of those out are the college students, whereas in the 80's you would see as many 'locals' as students, and a more age diverse group of people as well. Between TV and computers technology has destroyed the US's social values.

Michael T
Michael T

This is funny. When I told a few people I was working on a project to take down facebook, one person reply back tome and old me Google should be your target. I now undertand that if I can take out facebook, Google is just another roadkill. People laugh at such claims like can people walk on the moon some day 1,000 years ago. People laugh at people saying that but now walking on the moon is reality.

Nothing difficult at all. So, to kill Google is not as hard as people might think. I have found my answer to kill Google. This is no joke- I'm going to take out Yahoo, Zynga, Groupon, Ebay, Facebook then offer free searches without bias or adveritssing attachements and eliminate Google easily. The thing is I must take out Yahoo and Zynga and Ebay in the first year of operation. Groupon is dead because I plan to offer half the price of what Groupon charges businesses.

Stay Tuned for the People's Project. We got 7 inventions to take out all these guys but we do need to build data centers in order to do so. That is why once we write up the prototype and get seed funding from angel investors, End of Google in 3 to 5 years. Believe this as if you would believe a man could walk on the moon. Believe this that in the future man can walk on mars. Believe this as man will live on the Mars some day. Believe Google will end up dead just like any company that came before it.Ming.

Michael T
Michael T

Investors in Facebook must think twice before they buy this stock because there is always a better company coming out going to replace Facebook in the not too distant future. I'm working on a project exactly going to do that. One way or another, this project is going to come out by late this year ir early next year because it does take funding to do this project. To be able to eliminate Facebook is worth many billions.

I'm going to attempt to take out Ebay, Groupon, Linkedin and then Zynga then deal with Facebook and Yahoo. Google will be my last target as I will offer free unbiased searches in the future. Who needs Google if you can get it for free without bias of advertising?

Ming.

Robert Mark
Robert Mark

The Facebook farce is a fraud. They've capitalized on the basis of bogus numbers. There are hundreds of millions of avatars and shills being sold to the corporate rubes as 'real people.' Hey, Romney even handed us our defense: "corporations are people too."

Turk
Turk

# FGA IPO v fb? r u h8trz 4 rl? omfg, rotflmfao @ u stpd b!tchz 4evr. hahahahaha. :)

Carmen
Carmen

One major problem with unplugging from Facebook is you will lose the ability to comment in other websites, as they require it now. If I want to comment on an article in the local online paper, I have to have a FB account. Because everyone is who they say they are on FB, right?

Yeah...and my name is really "Carmen." Snork.

Still waiting for Diaspora, btw.

Rawdoc
Rawdoc

So what you do this is create a Profile on Face Book as 'Village Idiot', saying your job is to tear away the fabric of Reality ---and, when they 'cleverly' ask 'how' to do this, say: 'Just start at the Horizon & pull upwards!'. Do this now before it becomes illegal to snark @ Faeces Book....

unabletoplaytennis
unabletoplaytennis

Watch out for a new project coming out to give Facebook a headache soon. It is called The People's Project. Stay tune for news by end of 2012.

Ming- the creator of this project.

unabletoplaytennis
unabletoplaytennis

Watch out for The People's project coming soo by end of this year hopefully. Facebook could end up really dead this time. The People's Project is coming.

Ming.

Sue Krige
Sue Krige

This article makes a number of serious and interesting points. But it will lose its audience after about three paragraphs as the article is long winded shot through with pontificating, in true left wing and academic fashion.And the people who will congregate around Diasopra will probably be just as dull. I wonder what the average demogarphic and age of the audience was. Get over yourselves and think a much more attractive and funky approach, which can reach a wider audience, esp young people. This be done without losing the valid critique in the article. I speak from a committed social justice, leftwing and academic background.

Joly MacFie
Joly MacFie

'Unconvinced' below could be excused for not viewing/reading the 'Freedom in the Cloud' talk - I might mention, a presentation of the Internet Society's New York Chapter - as it is not directly linked in the article. It is at http://isoc-ny.org/?p=1338

Unconvinced
Unconvinced

Oh. please. Could barely stomach the first page of the article and I refuse to read the rest of this drivel. I love how the professor uses "The Social Network," a FICTIONAL movie in case anyone forgot, as his overarching premise on who Mark Zuckerberg is and why he invented Facebook. To get laid? Sounds like the professor is just bitter.

What an idiot.

Silkroad
Silkroad

@Lucas

Facebook is not necessarily inevitable. Look at what happened to Myspace.

Lucas BX
Lucas BX

The fact that this website, and every other website, has little f's plastered all over the screen really speaks to how derivative facebook has become to the computer experience. The damage has already been done. There's no escaping facebook. Cheers to anyone who picked up on this social distortion before it became the thing to do.

pathman25
pathman25

If you're not paying for it you are the product not the client. Don't fall for the Facepalm scam.

columbia 4 cunts
columbia 4 cunts

columbia law professor sounds like a very bitter, very envious of facebook, idiot.

k0nsl
k0nsl

@Steve Moyer More like "Jewbook" ;)

Nwebbjeebus
Nwebbjeebus

I agree with you re social media's inherent unsociability, but I know I get out and about less nowadays primarily because of the economy and what money I have doesn't go as far as it used to 20 or 30 years ago.

There are other factors.Technology hasn't destroyed America's social values. Madison Ave, celebrity culture, video games and bad parenting have. Neither of my nephews, ages 7 and 9, could believe it when I told them their mother, father and I lived in a world without the internet. Even a luddite like me has a FB page, a Twitter feed and a flip phone. Texting and email have their uses. If you're using FB and Twitter as your primary means of communication with friends and family, however, then, yes, you have a problem.

Turk
Turk

... of course the "added-value/benefit" to the socially-interactive, uhm, reductionism (for lack of a better term) you aptly make mention of is, or so would the loyal facebook apologists argue- that within the period of time you speak of violent crime has dwindled across the country; our streets are cleaner and our children safer (though nay would point to a sharp increase in child obesity, their increasingly eroding attention spans or growing propensity toward antisocial behavior, which, is it just me or does it appear for some reason that too often the latter coincides with calls to fund both the study AND treatment of so called "autism spectrum disorders"?).

why just last month the BBC aired some must-be facetious, utterly ridiculous hour long segment titled "how facebook changed the world", its theory being that among intended purposes for the site could be interpreted and included to spurt the "rise of democracy" (or, as democracy in the post tahrir-square-spring-thingy current 'zeitgeist' used to be known as- military dictatorships, no?) across egypt and the arab world.

... as apossed to "how the (arab) world changed facebook", right (and still got, uh, unfriended... defriended... whatevs, yo!)?

Turk
Turk

... uh, could your repeated posts on here be considered FREE ADVERTISEMENT for your "project", and if so, how 'pryed unto' should the rest of us feel, that is, how interrupted has the experience of our reading and opining on this article been by your de facto (pre) marketting campaign?

silly question yes, but the larger point being (and i think another poster here, Sarino- eluded to this already) that true, corporal (social) interaction continues to be greatly eroded/diminished by the likes/models of facebook, and to this ill your idea appears to offer not a thorough (re)solution, but rather just an(other) alternate version.

... you know, competition; another tame-the-mind computer (wishful) application, if you will; which by the way before reading your replies this morning i had absolutely no idea what 'groupon' or 'zynga' were, and to be perfectly honest, i hardly think i'll so much as bother to look them up, respectively.

there's a hint for you somewhere in that.

Decktrio
Decktrio

That is a hurdle that we need to jump. It's hard but there's no other choice. If we're going to cut FB out of our lives, then we need to send a message to the other websites that use facebook's plugins.

To stop the temptation, I use AdBlock Plus, and filter out this:||facebook.com/plugins/*||static.ak.fbcdn.net/rsrc.php/v...

So if a site uses facebook's comments plugin, I don't even see the comments section, which is just as well for me. That site, isn't really encouraging a free dialogue if their using fb's comment plugin. They're just using us to cross-advertise.

Shmerl
Shmerl

Normal sites offer OpenID or something the like for commenting (in the future it can be BrowserID which Mozilla proposed).

And no need to wait for Diaspora, join any public community pod which accepts registrations: https://github.com/diaspora/di...

DeadSuperHero
DeadSuperHero

On the contrary, Diaspora's community has a wide variety of incredibly interesting people. Artists, writers, developers, designers, musicians, activists, philosophers, etc. There are a lot of people with a passion for higher learning and deeper thinking over there, so I wouldn't be quite so quick to knock it.

Chindogu To You
Chindogu To You

Sue, I'm truly sorry your attention span has been impaired by years of bad TV, 140-character tweets and the general impatience of youth. But please... don't assume the rest of us also have ADHD, eh?

Ack
Ack

I read the whole thing and enjoyed it thank you very much. Pffft.

Guesssst
Guesssst

I think he was describing what attracts people to facebook in general, not just Zuckerberg's personal motives. I agree with him.

Foxyloxy2006
Foxyloxy2006

Uhm.....You do realize Mark Zuckerberg was involved in making that movie....?

Susan Powell
Susan Powell

Unconvinced, he made one passing comment/joke about a movie then said it's meaningless. You wrote a comment on an article about a several hour lecture that you couldn't bother to read. My god, how poor is your attention span? You know you can seek help for that.

Ack
Ack

herp

Michael T
Michael T

This project we are building is nothing people have ever seen yet. It should remain secret until prototype is done. One thing I can say is this privacy issue does not sell user's data to anyone. No forced advertising also. Our first target is not Facebook but Ebay and Groupon and Zynga and Yahoo. We are a nonprofit so this time around, Ebay will be fearful of our existence. We won't be selling one share to Ebay.

Ming.

Ack
Ack

nailed it.

Turk
Turk

... in that case, GOOD LUCK and GOD SPEED to you, sir!you are a braver, much more hopeful man than i am.

 
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