Rise of the Facebook-Killers

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

"We're actually trying to be sort of careful about talking to the press right now because whenever more people hear about this, we get way more volunteers than we know what to do with," Boyer says. "Everyone is really excited about this."

Like Diaspora*, these Occupy projects won't be run through a single central node of servers. That's partly an ideological decision, but it's also a practical one.

"One of the reasons Facebook has to sell information is to cover the massive costs of hosting that information," Knutson says. "If you distribute that burden and have every little community hosting its own node, your costs drop down to something very manageable, like $20 a month."

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.

This distribution makes the network more accountable to its users, too. Even if every occupier isn't running his or her own personal server, the one he or she is using is probably no further away than the occupation's tech tent. Even better, for those worried about malicious government or corporate interference, the distributed network is much less vulnerable to denial of service attacks, which makes the network much harder to take down.

The goal is to roll out a basic working version of the Federated General Assembly soon, to allow occupiers to use it, find flaws, make suggestions, and build plug-ins on top of it. The basic structure is clear, though: The FGA will be built around the same principles and strengths of the movement it serves. That means the system has to be radically democratic, horizontal, and decentralized. It also means that, just like the Occupy movement itself, the fundamental organizing unit is the group. From the smallest affinity group of friends or working group collaborating on a task to an entire city's General Assembly, groups and their relationships are at the heart of the FGA.

"At Occupy Wall Street, the groups you're affiliated with, that's sort of your identity," Boyer says. "You say: 'Hi, I'm Sam. I'm with the Technology Group' or 'Hi, I'm visiting this week from Occupy L.A.'"

These affiliations help create context and trust between users and also a variety of online spaces in which different kinds of conversations can take place.

"I like to compare Facebook to communication in preschool," Boyer says. "The Facebook wall is an incredibly unsophisticated social space. People just spew stuff out. In adult social situations, we read cues, we create norms, we create rules that are there for the purpose of creating conversations that move us forward. That's what we want to build."

Much of what the developers are building is specifically tailored to the unique structures and values of the Occupy movement. But they're also building their networks with an eye on the bigger picture.

"This was born out of the needs of the occupiers, but we by no means wish to restrict what we're building to just the Occupy movement," Knutson says. "I think this can have a big effect on social networking more generally. Ironically, I could actually see this having broad implications in the corporate world as well—anything where you're working with a team made of groups scattered around the world."

The key, Knutson says, is to recognize that oftentimes the most important thing is to get out of the way of the users. "If you look at any social network, the functionality that's provided is a relatively small part of the network," he says. "Most of the value is in the people involved, the network itself, the connections between actual people."

Given the current time frame, it's entirely possible that Facebook's public offering could take place the same day that the Federated General Assembly or Global Square launch their first rough versions. Nobody expects these early iterations, or even the somewhat more polished alternative of Diaspora*, to make Facebook or its investors so much as blink anytime soon.

But Moglen cautions patience.

"Free software moves more slowly because there isn't any money in it," Moglen says. "But that doesn't mean it doesn't eventually get there. Facebook can only give people what it's already given them. But in the future, they can have all of that, plus the privacy they'd like. It's true: People will give up freedom for convenience, but if you give them both, eventually, they choose the option with freedom."

Boyer isn't convinced that any of these new social networks will lead Facebook to collapse in the near future.

"I think it's possible that Facebook will still be around in five years, and even in 10," Boyer says. "But I'd like to see it recede into only being used for that single, simple purpose that it ultimately serves very well, which I continue to use it for: finding that person that I met a million years ago. The rest of it, we can do better."

Moglen is less cautious.

"The thesis behind the Facebook IPO is we now have 1 billion people trapped, and soon we'll have 2 billion," Moglen says. "But that's not going to happen. We're going to have federated social networking in a matter of months—probably more than 12 but a lot less than 120. So somewhere between 12 and 120 months from now, Facebook is going to cease to exist."

npinto@villagevoice.com

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