Can Facebook Really Bring About A More Peer-to-Peer, Bottom-Up World?

from the reality-distortion-field dept

Mark Zuckerberg’s letter to shareholders included in Facebook’s IPO filing contains a pretty bold vision for Facebook to not just connect people and enable them to share, but to fundamentally restructure the way that the world works:

By helping people form these connections, we hope to rewire the way people spread and consume information. We think the world’s information infrastructure should resemble the social graph — a network built from the bottom up or peer-to-peer, rather than the monolithic, top-down structure that has existed to date. We also believe that giving people control over what they share is a fundamental principle of this rewiring.

We have already helped more than 800 million people map out more than 100 billion connections so far, and our goal is to help this rewiring accelerate. [emphasis added]

That sounds pretty lofty, but if you recognize that Facebook provides a social networking service that hundreds of millions of people use — but forget for a moment that it’s Facebook — it’s quite a bold “social mission.” And there are many examples of how the service has been used as a key tool in affecting change on everything from opposition to the Canadian DMCA to the Arab Spring. There’s no doubt that the service makes it easier for people to organize in a more bottom-up way.

But, once you remember that it’s Facebook we’re talking about, the vision sounds more problematic. Could Facebook ever truly bring about a peer-to-peer, bottom-up network? The notion seems to be an inherent contradiction to Facebook’s architecture — as a centralized, proprietary, walled garden social networking service. Facebook may enable a more bottom-up structure, but it’s a bit disingenuous for Zuckerberg to decry a monolithic, top-down structure when Facebook inserts itself as the new intermediary and gatekeeper. As a centralized, proprietary, walled garden service, Facebook is a single point for attacks, control, and surveillance, never mind controversial policies or privacy concerns. Facebook may enable a more bottom-up and peer-to-peer network compared to many things that came before, but there is something fundamentally at odds with a truly distributed solution at the core of its architecture and its DNA.

To realize the full potential of bottom-up, peer-to-peer social networking infrastructure, we need autonomous, distributed, and free network services — the sort of vision that StatusNet/Identi.ca or Diaspora have tried to bring about. Rewiring the world to create a more bottom-up, peer-to-peer network is a bold vision for Zuckerberg to put forth — and one that Facebook has advanced in many ways — yet it’s fundamentally at odds with the reality of Facebook as a centralized and proprietary walled garden.

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Comments on “Can Facebook Really Bring About A More Peer-to-Peer, Bottom-Up World?”

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25 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

The long and the short of it is “no”.

Facebook, like most other popular sites that have gone before it, is almost certainly doomed to a slow but steady decline. Already, in the US, there is a decline in users, and a decline is usage, which has been pretty much lost in the expansion in other countries.

After you have met all your school friends again, after you have annoyed all of your friends with yet another horrible bark dog video or some farmville update, people tune out. It’s not a question of IF it will happen, but when.

A few years ago, everyone thought MySpace was going to re-define the universe. Instead, it’s become a bit of a joke. There is no clearly visible reason why Facebook won’t face the same fate, as the next big thing comes along and buries it.

Anonymous Coward says:

When a social network will actually be able to bring about change...

Because lists are cool:

1) When information is not centrally-stored, so if someone removed data they add, the only thing left of it is a few cached bits on friends’ sides of things, which quickly disappear as well, so people don’t have to be afraid of not being able to take anything down.

2) When information is not centrally-stored, so it can’t be farmed and sold to any and everyone.

3) When information is not centrally-stored, so if there is an actual change movement at all, authorities can’t just demand a central party turn off a few servers and it all goes away.

(See a theme here? OK, a couple others…)

4) When it’s not a service run in a way where anyone with half a brain runs for the hills (and no, Google or anyone else pushing the same basic model doesn’t make it better).

5) When it’s not run by a for-profit company.

Anonymous Coward says:

Perhaps I am a cynic, but to my way of thinking this idea of a “bottom up” approach seems little more than those at the “bottom” who secure an equity position in the company are doing little more that sending the money they are investing “up” to the CEO, MK, who per the terms of the IPO enjoys a stock position that ensures he remains firmly in control.

Maybe those at the “bottom” will have the good fortune to see their investment grow, but I have to wonder is this IPO is truly a way to secure investments capital, or is it simply a means to turn the company into the functional equivalent of an investment firm?

Anonymous Coward says:

It's all BS

Spammer Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t actually care about this stuff: it’s just hype designed to sucker investors. The lofty, visionary prose is merely a smokescreen for the weak-minded (which easily covers 95% of human beings on this planet) who are willing to buy into a nebulous vision of future while overlooking that EVERYTHING Facebook has done to date has been aimed in the opposite direction.

eclecticdave (profile) says:

We talk a lot here about how piracy can be dealt with if the entertainment industry offered an alternative that had most of the same content as file-sharing, but was simple to use and more convenient.

With social networking, the boot is pretty much on the other foot – Facebook et al are the easy option (just sign up and go), while the open distributed alternatives like Diaspora typically require you to install the software on a server (which you will need to buy or rent).

Until this problem is solved, I don’t see any distributed alternative to Facebook getting any traction outside of the “geek” community.

phildem (profile) says:

re: peer-to-peer social networking

Social Networking meets peer to peer design, non centralized protocol based social networking, with some sort of built in key based encryption…wouldn’t that be cool.

No doubt there’s probably someone out there working on that, but how to make it popular, how to hedge the existing social networking ‘mental bandwidth’ (limited though that may be) of the current social networking population.

Loki says:

The problem here is that a “network built from the bottom up or peer-to-peer, rather than the monolithic, top-down structure that has existed to date” seems completely incongruent with how Facebook and other sites make money (essentially by developing “filter bubbles”)

While “bottom up peer-to-peer” largely solves the issue of “As web companies strive to tailor their services (including news and search results) to our personal tastes, there’s a dangerous unintended consequence: We get trapped in a “filter bubble” and don’t get exposed to information that could challenge or broaden our worldview.” discussed in the above video, implementing it within the current confines of how businesses earn their money seems a rather daunting task.

Not to mention, while there are some things Facebook does that are very convenient for a lot of it’s users, there are some things it does (or doesn’t do in other cases) that are very inconvenient for many of it’s users. There are some significant changes Facebook would need to make to their network (because those are the changes the users would want) before it could become this sort of network.

Blaise Alleyne (profile) says:

Re:

I’m not sure I buy the filter bubble thing entirely. I got into an in-depth abortion debate almost a year ago with a close friend, and three other people that he went to high school with, people who I am Facebook friends with but rarely interact with, acquintances. Now, anytime that anything remotely related comes up, or that me and someone else from that group comments on the same post, it shows it in all of our news feeds right away. Facebook is trying really hard to suggest something we might be interested in again, but it’s mistakenly thought that the one-off debate thread configuration is a bubble worth recreating… And, there are a few other people whom I’ve debated once or twice on other topics that have reappeared in my news feed often since, even though we don’t interact otherwise… the bubbles aren’t always things that mirror our personal views. Though, I do resent the way the news feed algorithm works increasingly… Facebook has a very simplistic view of what it thinks I want to see…

Blaise Alleyne (profile) says:

Re:

Facebook et al are the easy option (just sign up and go), while the open distributed alternatives like Diaspora typically require you to install the software on a server (which you will need to buy or rent).

Until this problem is solved, I don’t see any distributed alternative to Facebook getting any traction outside of the “geek” community.

That’s the same problem with free software / open source in general. Mako Hill writes about this in When Free Software Isn’t better — it takes those dedicated geeks and software freedom advocates to use and improve the software/systems where it isn’t / they aren’t better, but, yes, they also must cross that threshold of ease-of-use before they can reach widespread adoption. This is a familiar barrier.

eclecticdave (profile) says:

Re:

True, but then there’s also the cost of running a Diaspora node, or equivalent, that needs to be addressed.

With free software we’re lucky that the economics works in our favour – although we aim to emphasize the freedom aspect over “free-as-in-beer”, the latter undoubtedly plays a big part when it comes to the widespread adoption of a particular application.

As others have already said, p2p is one solution to the cost problem, but risks taking a step back in ease of use, as you now need a social networking client application instead of just firing up a browser. Might work with mobile apps though.

Now if there were a p2p based system that ran in the browser, maybe that would be the sweet spot. I’m not sure that such as thing is currently possible though.

Blaise Alleyne (profile) says:

Re:

Agreed. I’m not sure this project will succeed, but have you heard of the FreedomBox Foundation? They’re aiming to make it easier to run your own StatusNet / Diaspora / ejabberd / Mediagoblin / GNU FM / whatever else from a little plug server… kind of like how GNU/Linux distributions like Debian package up all kinds of desktop software in an easy-to-use way, so you don’t have to compile and build everything for your computer, FreedomBox aims to take the “distribution” model into the net services application space it seems.

Personally, I think they have a long way to go to really make it out-of-the-box point/click/install easy, but that kind of distribution idea combined with small-scale plug servers that you can easily run from your house… that seems like an interesting p2p angle to experiment with.

I run a bunch of stuff off my living room computer, which is externally accessible, but I’m a sysadmin… something like FreedomBox aims to make that kind of thing a little more accessible.

eclecticdave (profile) says:

Re:

Yes, I’ve read about it – like you I think they’ve got some way to go to make it an interesting proposition to the “average joe”.

It helps with the cost issue – replacing a rental fee with a one off payment of what – $60 or something like that? That’s an improvement but I think they still have a hill to climb to persuade millions of people to shell out for one. They need a killer app – the idea they’re running with of it helping you retain control over your private data probably isn’t enough of an incentive on its own to get most to open their wallets.

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