Facebook is NOT the web

Facebook wants to get people into their clutches, and obscure the fact that there is a world-wide web of stuff out there. They will probably succeed, too; more’s the pity. Still, I’ll continue to avoid them, just in case they do require my participation to ensure full world-domination.

Facebook and Google spread ‘their’ net across the mobile world, by John Naughton in The Observer, Sunday 24 March 2013:

It’s a smart strategy, and it will have one predictable outcome, namely, that many new users of the internet from poor countries will think that Facebook (or Google) is the Internet. This would be a particularly pernicious outcome for those who find themselves inside Facebook’s walled garden, because it’s much more comprehensively fenced than anything yet constructed by Google.

Why does this matter? Well, in a way, it comes back to the guys who won the Queen Elizabeth prize. The network that Cerf and Kahn built was deliberately designed as an open, permissive system. Anyone could use it, and if you had an idea that could be realised in software, then the net would do it for you, with no questions asked. Tim Berners-Lee had such an idea – the web – and the internet enabled it to happen. And Berners-Lee made the web open in the same spirit, so Mark Zuckerberg was able to build Facebook on those open foundations.

But Zuckerberg has no intention of allowing anyone to use Facebook as the foundation for building anything that he doesn’t control. He’s kicking away the ladder up which he climbed, in other words.

Of course we can do it

I read a few posts this morning about the wonders of open software and how it can help ‘the 99%’. Nothing new there, in the techno-optimism, nor with the “yes, but” reactions to it. It’s heartening to read it, though; there’s far too many people harping on about the delights of the iPhone.

One thing that does strike me is that we really do already have the tools for this open paradigm: we don’t need some new crew of idealists to come along and build a Faceboo’ replacement, or invent some new way of storing files (or remove the necessity for doing so). We just need to stick to the open standards and apply a tiny amount of conservatism when it comes to choosing the next groovy technology that we’re to trust. Not very difficult, and yet people run to cast their lot in with corporations who give barely a nod to these ideas.

Perhaps Bruce Love is correct, and a practical distributed and decentralized net can be built trivially using a mix of explicit peering with rsync and rss for open peering. Seems simple to me; just needs to have a GUI that makes it look like an iPhone, I guess.

What my blog is

I want my blog to be the hub of my online life. I’ve come back to using WordPress because I want to be able to show other people how easy it is to avoid the walled-gardens of Facebook, Twitter, et al. So I need to explain what I want my blog to be.

  1. A place to post reports, thoughts, photos, observations, etc. about what’s been going on in my life (i.e. what a blog usually is);
  2. A means of providing a feed of the posts;
  3. Somewhere to consume feeds from elsewhere (see my news page for how this is shaping up so far; it leaves a fair bit to be desired, but I’m working on that);
  4. In its capacity of a record of things, I want to be able to print yearly compendiums of all contents (might seem strange in this age of digitisation, but I do rather like a good solid shelf full of records — even if I never use them);
  5. Be my OpenID provider (this is working perfectly);
  6. I have a couple of other sites around, and I would ideally have their functionality within WordPress itself… this is probably the biggest problem I have at the moment.

Basically, I like Dave Winer’s idea of everyone having their own place to call home on the web, that doesn’t involve giving all their content to Facebook or whoever.

How far I am from doing all this: really, it’s the crappy photo management of WordPress that’s holding me back. I’ve got a couple of draft plugins that should fix this up (be able to change the date of uploads, for one thing!). The other thing I’d like — even though I realise that it’s acutally nothing to do with blogging and so doesn’t really belong in WordPress, but I would like it — is to be able to check my email from within this site (one of my other little hand-coded sites that I’ve got elsewhere is an email archiving thing that ends up producing a yearly LaTeX-formatted tome of all my emails).

(Anyway, I’m really only posting this to get things straight in my head, and there’s more to be said — where Wikimedia, OSM, etc. fit in, in this scheme, for instance — but it’s time to go. I have at least kept my one-post-per-day thing going for the third day in a row!)

Facebook vs. WordPress

The last few weeks have seen a great number of my friends turn to Facebook (and, of course, I know exactly how many). It’s great, it’s exciting, it’s suddenly become so easy to organise things and we can now all talk about Facebookwhen we meet for a coffee at the Front; however, all is not as funky as one might seem…

Don’t misunderstand me here, I’m all in favour of using Facebook — I just don’t think it should be used for everything. It’s great as a procrastination tool, for example, or for stumbling across long-lost friends, or being sent lovely pictures like this:

Picture: Sam got tapes for 35c.

But Facebook is, despite their oh-so-wonderful API, a closed system. We’re all piling our (desperately interesting, I’m sure) personal information into it, and giving no thought to what will happen to that information in the future. I don’t neccessarilly mean the usual conspiracy theories of governmental data-harvesting or derranged stalkers (they probably apply to wherever one is one the web), but what about ideas of cultural artifact preservation? (I know, I know, no one cares…)

Much of Facebook replicates systems that we’ve been using for years. Why, for example, did they have to build their own private messaging system? What’s wrong with email? Could they not have made it all work together — maybe someone will build an IMAP webmail application for Facebook, and prove my objections aimless.

But that’s all beside the point: I’m a geek, and prefer to build my own. An article in Wired started me off thinking about this, and since then I’ve been doing a bit of reading (eg. SNIX), and here’s my skeleton thus far of a distributed, home-grown, open-source, social networking system:

  • Start with a blog. I prefer WordPress, but the point of all this is that by using open standards it really doesn’t matter what software we use. Post whatever you want (images, movies, audio, anything) and enable comments on everything.
  • Collect feeds. Most blogging tools come with in-built support for news feeds of some kind, usually at least RSS and Atom. Create a page on your blog and aggregate all of your friends’ feeds there.
  • Post coming events. With a plugin like Event Calendar you can post future events, and produce a iCalendar feed to which your friends can subscribe. Add another page, to aggregate your friends’ events.

Unfortunately, that’s about where it ends. How does one have ‘Friends’ on a system that doesn’t mandate common software — or common anything save interchange formats?! I don’t know. Maybe Facebook does rock after all…

But I do know that I’d rather be using my own software, with all content remaining under my control at all times; the methods for sharing this with the world are maturing, and before long will be widespread and useable.