Facebook: Privacy, the exodus, and Diaspora


Image credits: Diaspora's creators: Daniel Grippi, Maxwell Salzberg, Raphael Sofaer, and Ilya Zhitomirskiy
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If you're like me, it seems like every time you log into Facebook, you see another message or two from friends deleting their accounts. Then you check Twitter, and there's yet another rallying cry for open standards in social networking.

Wait. I just got déjà vu.

Wired (among many others) has been making that call for years. Years. But like so many noble causes, it took a sufficiently motivating, negative catalyst to spread the messsage.

In this case, the catalyst is Facebook's ever-shrinking concept of privacy. The EFF outlined the erosion of Facebook's privacy policy. The New York Times has mapped the maddening spaghetti that is privacy options on Facebook. And well-known people like Jason Calcanis started deleting their accounts.

So far it's not a massive exodus, but it's growing. But then, maybe rather than today's exodus, we should be talking about tomorrow's diaspora. Diaspora with a capital D, to be more specific. Or as the project describes itself, "the privacy aware, personally controlled, do-it-all, distributed, free, social network."

Open source social networking. That's the goal. Diaspora functions differently from the bottom. It runs more like a peer-to-peer network. That is, if you're inclined to set up your system to act as one of the seeds. They also plan to have a paid service for those who are not so inclined. Then you'll be able to aggregate everything from your status updates and photos to your RSS feeds. The students building Diaspora have a skeleton version running and intend to release a fuller version in September.

What a social network really needs, of course, is users. You could be the only one reading your favorite blog, and that's OK. If you're the only one on Diaspora, it's going to be lonely. In their favor, Diaspora answers the privacy outrage Facebook is facing. You're not posting anything to a third party--you're telling your friends directly. And they're including PGP encryption to boot.

The challenge it faces is similar to that of Identi.ca. Even though Identi.ca offers features that Twitter does not, Twitter is still far ahead in both awareness and users. Identi.ca attracts those for whom open standards trump all else, and not many more. To use ourselves as an example, even with an base of people who are clearly interested in the open source way, the opensource.com identi.ca account has consistently had roughly 10% of the followers that our Twitter account has. And those two services are functionally pretty similar. With potentially higher technical hurdles than Facebook, it will be interesting to see whether Diaspora can gain a significant user base.

Facebook's best defense is to turn itself around and answer the hue and cry. The first step will be today's crisis meeting on the subject. But after years of asking for forgiveness rather than permission, it may be too late. And maybe that's a good thing if it's the catalyst we need for open social networking, whether it's through Diaspora, or a new idea we haven't heard about yet.

Have you or do you think you might delete your Facebook account? Would you use Diaspora? More importantly--do you think all of your Facebook friends would use Diaspora?

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16 Comments

tkepley's picture
Open Minded

I just got done reading this article:
http://www.wired.com/epicenter/2010/05/facebook-rogue

I had been thinking of the privacy issues for a while, and they really irk me. Especially since I read that the Library of Congress is archiving all of Twitter, it makes me wonder if Facebook is next. So, I deleted my profile this morning. What's odd is they give you a place to tell them why you're leaving. And my complaint was that I had to continuously opt OUT if I wanted to remain more private. I told them that I wanted to have to opt in to things that make my profile more public. Then, right below that box, I read the following:

"Please check here to opt out from future Facebook emails"

That sealed the deal.

Then I read this article immediately after. Weird how things work.

gbraad's picture
Newbie

> That is, if you're inclined to set up your system to act as one of the seeds.

This suggests it will require an installation on a desktop computer or a server. Because of this reason it will be hard to get a userbase. Identi.ca and StatusNet use PHP to make deployment for a user easy, but it still requires some understanding before you can use it. Since Dreamhost introduced the single-click deployment it became a lot easier, but offers not all features at the moment.

Diaspora still seems to be a technical-savvy solution.

> They also plan to have a paid service for those who are not so inclined.

If people need to pay for this service, it becomes even harder to build up a userbase. As twitter is a free service... and Facebook, people are easy to to jump onto the bandwagon and try out... having to pay for it creates a barrier. Something StatusNet clearly understood... if you want additional functionality you can choose to pay for it.

But still Identi.ca has a different purpose. There is no form of privacy in the current implementation. Twitter at least has an option to make your profile 'private', but retweeting such a message is still allowed?

Diaspora has a long road ahead of them... to quote Evan Prodromou (founder of StatusnNet): "It'd be dumb to start over from scratch." http://evan.status.net/notice/28311

No matter what they end up with, they at least raised awareness for a federated social web.

pchestek's picture
Open Minded

Oh yeah, deleted it when I did a Google search on myself (long story, I'm really not that vain) and saw all my friends' and relatives' names listed in the Google excerpt of my Facebook account, showing up as about the sixth hit on Google. At least now the Facebook entry has slipped to the second result page -

Unidentified's picture

FaceBook...the perfect bait and switch! At first a friendly, private website to share your life and catch up with old friends...la la la...oh so innocent...

...not knowing it would turn into a Federally ran, privacy-killing website that holds your info and pictures even after you completely log out and de-activate your account.

You got caught with too many hands ion the cookie jar. Doing business and giving FaceBook authority to the Feds was the worst thing you could have done!! And you want to charge? HA that is a laugher!!

I am also considering getting out of FB forever! Too misleading, deceiving, too many viruses and too far over-reaching on personal and privacy rights.

DavidSpalding's picture
Open Minded

I, too, have deleted myself from the FaceSpace, partly due to the snowballing privacy threats, partly from a quick scan of Julian Angwin's great book, Stealing MySpace. I think Facebook is borrowing more than just a few pages from the Myspace playbook, essentially duplicating the site's voracious growth model by putting advertising and marketing interests before those of users. The interface, what was once a simple "home page," has recently mimicked MySpace's incomprehensible visual mess that just hurts my eyes.

Companies like this can only say "Gee, sorry..." a very few times before I think I've figured out their core values.

I'm more than happy to use fee-based sites which put clientele before corporate interests ... or, of course, an open source alternative. Diaspora sounds promising.

JamesP's picture

I've got outta there. Too many dubious privacy policy changes right under our noses. Not fair. Not right. I've movesd stuff to www.folkdirect.com and although pretty new it's found its feet. Worth giving it a shot. JamesP

DavidSpalding's picture
Open Minded

"This Site Is Unavailable // If you are the account holder, please contact the billing or support department as soon as possible."

6/04/10 update: Working now.

Wolf Paul's picture

I think the key to using facebook and other social networking sites (including open source and federated ones) is to think about what you are going to post, realizing that posting makes it public -- and given things like the wayback machine, permanently public, even if you later decide to delete your account.

As far as I can tell, lots of people who bewail the lack of privacy of sites like FB should rather bewail their own carelessness and stupidity in making too much of their info available on such sites.

Aunty's picture

Privacy, privacy . . . I hear you all say. And an important concept it is, though mostly a myth once you sit in front of a computer. I have long held the notion that NOTHING you put into a computer is ever really private, even if it's your own. Especially so when it's a computer owned by some Faceless corporation on the other side of the planet. Even more especially so when you've put it there expressly for someone else to read!

If I tell someone else my secret, no matter how trustworthy I hope they are, I've lost control of it right there. I cannot control, ultimately, what that other person will do with my secret. We may even have laws about what they can and can't do with my secret, but . . . laws aren't reality. They're just stuff we've made up. The secret is out. Laws can't bring it back!

Faceless, of course, takes this one step further. They invoke Law to claim that what you told (or showed to) your friend now belongs to them! You didn't just 'tell them' so that they could 'tell' your friend when she next logs in; You gave it to them. Now it's theirs. Not your story, your photo, your poem . . . but Faceless'. Sure, they'll most likely pass it on to your 'friends', but they've no reason to stop there - if they like it, they can pass it on - sell it, even - to whoever they want to. They're not being careless with 'your' secret. Because it's theirs!

The real issue is about ownership.

DavidSpalding's picture
Open Minded

I stopped using Facebook when I kept getting caught unawares by games "apps" that friends were sending that, once I participated, put things on my page that I didn't realize they would. One also signed me up for a $20 monthly cell phone charge without my approval. (No, really. The last message from them said something like, "Answer YES to sign up...." They had already done so. :P ) What these things did wasn't make clear up front ... it was hidden in the click-wrap details that no one wants to read (certainly while socializing).

There were so many cutesie little apps that people kept sending to me (or maybe they hadn't sent it, just clicked "OK" thinking they were just installing it), it got to be more than an annoyance, it was time-consuming just to visit the site. I'm sure this looked good to Faceless and its investors, but for this user it just became unusable. If I'd stopped to read all the fine print for every little "martini" or "farm fresh veggie" I got sent ... I'd have spent 8 hours a day just answering messages. Heck with that.

Wolf Paul's picture

My solution to that particular problem is very simple: I don't do ANY games or other apps. Anything like that my friends send (or FB sends) is automatically rejected, no need to look for and/or read the fine print.

I view FB as a way of staying in touch with folks, not as a playground. I also hide all of my friends' games status reports etc.

The secret to using FB and Twitter et al is to use them on my terms, not on theirs.

suehle's picture
Open Source Sensei

I'm with you. I read status updates and hide all the app updates. Once in a blue moon, I play a game from one of the few trusted sources that's using Facebook as a platform. But other than that, it's just another communications vehicle. Which is not to say it's not important in that role--not at all. There are a lot of updates I see and friends I keep up with (particularly long ago, re-met friends) only through Facebook. To some, that's extraneous. To me, particularly having moved so many times through my life and lost track of so many people, it's valuable and wonderful.

DavidSpalding's picture
Open Minded

(Apologies to anyone who loves bologna)

... And when I turned off all those apps, I found Facebook was rather boring. I started getting complaints that "I couldnt' [$ACTION] on your page because you don't have [$APP] turned on."

Strip away all the dancing bologna, and Facebook yielded very little value to me. Imagine that. Heh.

suehle's picture
Open Source Sensei

What sorts of things are you wanting to do with Facebook that you can't do without apps? The only thing I can think of where I've run into that is the Picture of the Day app. I wish people would just use their built-in photo galleries. Even Flickr, or whatever external service. But once in a while, I'll see a thumbnail and want to see the rest, but it's "So-and-so has discovered their Picture of the Day!" and you have to have the app to see it.

Dai's picture

Absolutely right it is about ownership of data and information. Without you retaining ownership you have no say what happens to your data/information

tkepley's picture
Open Minded

and being shocked that they are put public. It's not the fact that things I post are public--that's obvious, and it's obvious it will be scraped by hundreds of servers (including the Library of Congress irt Twitter). My concern is the things I didn't want public, that I explicitly stated I didn't want public that slowly kept going public.

It's just like when you sign up for this site...technically OSDC has your password and email because that's required. However, the password is hashed and hard for OSDC to figure out. Secondly, the email can be marked as public or private. And you should have a reasonable expectation that OSDC will not sell your email addy to the highest bidder.

I'm not suggesting that facebook is handing out passwords...but my point is the same...things I deemed private were still making its way out. I was forced, several times, into continuing to use certain features and risk my info being public after several policy changes...it's more than just the update about the delicious food I just ate or me putting my hometown in there. It's about knowing exactly what info is used where.