The Social Network | Taking Facebook into Public Ownership

I went to see The Social Network the other night, and have been mulling on it since. I have to say, I didn’t really fancy the thought of going to see a film about Facebook, but the reviews have been very good, and I’m a fan of Aaron Sorkin. It’s actually very funny, and very interesting… and made me hate Facebook even more than ever. Of course, the film is fiction – although it can’t be too far from the truth as one would imagine it would be in the courts by now.

No one comes out particularly well in the film – Harvard graduates coming across as self-centred, egocentric frat-boys – but Zuckerberg himself is a very interesting character. Having coded and refused to sell a variety of innovative programmes before college, he resists monetizing Facebook because, as it goes viral around the Ivy Leagues, ‘the site is cool, and advertising is not.’ His own Facebook page gives his mission statement as this:

“I’m trying to make the world a more open place by helping people connect and share.”

I find this really interesting, because my experience of Facebook is the opposite of an ‘open’ place. Firstly because it’s highly restrictive – one cannot get rid of page elements that you don’t like (like ‘meeting hot singles in my area’, FFS) but also because, at a deeper level, I don’t believe that it is promoting human openness. In fact, in my experience as a teacher, I think it is actually making people more anxious and much more self-conscious. Every moment at every meeting with friends now has the potential to be posted, tagged and commented on. So people respond and become more ‘ready’ for that.

Zuckerberg has made insane amounts of money from Facebook, and is known as a bit of a maverick, so part of me wonders if he is still uneasy with the way that the site has turned out. Digging around a little, he has recently donated money to the Diaspora project, which is probably best described as the WordPress of social networks:

The developers aim for it to be a decentralized alternative to social network services like Facebook. In an interview with the New York Times Soafer said “We don’t need to hand our messages to a hub. What Facebook gives you as a user isn’t all that hard to do. All the little games, the little walls, the little chat, aren’t really rare things. The technology already exists.”

Diaspora works by letting users set up their own server (or “seed”) to host content; seeds can then interact to share status updates, photographs and other social data. A developer preview was released on 15 September 2010 and a consumer alpha is planned for October 2010.

Zuckerberg has described it as ‘a cool idea’ and if he is serious about making the world more open, so he should. What is interesting about this idea is that it ties in nicely with some reading I’ve been doing around the ancient idea of ‘the commons.’ In Lewis Hyde’s latest book, he talks about the legal idea of ‘Common Carriers’ – like roads, telecoms cables and waterways. They are infrastructures put in place for everyone to benefit from.

So my challenge to Zuckerberg is this: if you’re serious about making the world more open, why not turn Facebook inside out and make it a ‘common carrier’? He could remove it from private ownership, fund it through a trust, remove all the ads and free the code under a GPL release. This would make his ‘Code for America‘ idea a little more interesting. What that wouldn’t do is help people cope with living in such a highly networked world. The massively open world he has apparently created is far ahead of our evolutionary ability to respond appropriately to it, and it’s going to be a while before people normalise with it…


2 responses to “The Social Network | Taking Facebook into Public Ownership”

  1. …new to your blog but I really like what you got goin’ on over here. Especially the layout! I think I need to do some updating of my own 🙂

  2. Jonathan – a different one 🙂

    Not that it alters FB *is* just the way that your browser presents it, but you could try:

    which does improve the level of user control over the site. YMWV.