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Facebook: Of the people but not for or by the people?

It's no wonder the Social Web--the Internet with the concept of people and relationships embedded in the fabric (what Sir Tim Berners-Lee calls the Giant Global Graph)--has become such a controversial topic. It's a kind of spontaneous, greedy gold rush for the social networks to accumulate members, exploit the social graph for revenue and add new features as fast as possible.

It's no wonder the Social Web--the Internet with the concept of people and relationships embedded in the fabric (what Sir Tim Berners-Lee calls the Giant Global Graph)--has become such a controversial topic. It's a kind of spontaneous, greedy gold rush for the social networks to accumulate members, exploit the social graph for revenue and add new features as fast as possible.

In other words, it's an early stage capitalist movement that is of the people but not precisely for the people or by the people, as the social networks would have you think.

We have are in a non-lethal civil war, actually a skirmish over privacy and control issues, the liberation of the social graph. Now a vocal and influential minority of users and pundits are pushing back on Facebook, which has become the face of social networking with its growth and advertising model that exploits the social graph in ways that goes against the idea that people should have an unalienable right to control their own data.

Doc Searls advocates a peaceful rebellion, with members of various social networks creating the rules to protect privacy because the social networks and other entities that control user data are not interested in a more symmetrical relationship.

For too long we’ve lived with “relationship management” that’s asymmetrical and one-way. Creating the grounds for symmetrical relationships cannot be the job of Facebook, Google, Microsoft or any big company. They can’t do it, and they won’t. We can’t petition those lords with prayer, blogs, or anything else. (Well, we can, but it won’t be enough.)

We need to create our own new rules — ones that protect our privacy while making us better members of the social and business systems we create together. I say “better” because that’s what we’re bound to be when we cease being eyeballs and start acting like whole human beings.

A Constitution or Bill of Rights for the social Web has been proposed --Thoughts on the Social Graph and Open Social Web--but the people are not revolting, abandoning their social networks of choice, taking to the virtual streets in protest.

MoveOn.org has been trying to stage a protest against Facebook’s Beacon advertising. It has received huge amounts of mainstream press but after about a week only about 25,000 users have signed the petition. Facebook has more than 55 million users.

So far, Facebook remains silent on the topic and certainly in listening mode. In a email statement yesterday, the company said, "Facebook is listening to feedback from its users and committed to evolving Beacon so users have even more control over the actions shared from participating sites with their friends on Facebook...Facebook already has made changes to ensure that no information is shared unless a user receives notifications both on a participating website and on Facebook."

A universal opt-out or opt-in requirement for Facebook Beacon would be good way to assuage critics and serve the people.

Cory Doctorow suggests in a post titled, "How Your Creepy Ex-Co-Workers Will Kill Facebook," that Facebook could crumble or at least stumble as it grows, because it increases the probability that users will be put in an awkward social circumstance. For example, if you are applying for a job and your prospective employer checks your Facebook profile and finds something unsavory, you could be denied the position.

Facebook is expected to make its social graph divisible by categories, such as friends and business. It will introduce some difficult user interface issues, with users having multiple and intersecting social graphs. But you still end up with the awkward situation of a business associates who think they should be part of the friends social graph, and you don't want to offer that access. In this case, the Web doesn't exactly mirror relationship management in the analog world.

Cory advises Facebook to take its cues from the Web itself:

Many of my colleagues wonder if Facebook can be redeemed by opening up the platform, letting anyone write any app for the service, easily exporting and importing their data, and so on (this is the kind of thing Google is doing with its OpenSocial Alliance). Perhaps if Facebook takes on some of the characteristics that made the Web work -- openness, decentralization, standardization -- it will become like the Web itself, but with the added pixie dust of "social," the indefinable characteristic that makes Facebook into pure crack for a significant proportion of Internet users.

As I suggested in a previous post, the masters of Facebook, flush with $240 million Microsoft dollars, need to engage in this conversation.

When the Facebook News Feed and Mini Feed were criticized for privacy issues, co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg issued an open letter mea cupla and started a Facebook group, Free Flow of Information on the Internet, about helping people share information with the people they want to share it with and based on the notion that privacy and enabling people to share information privately without exposing it to others is critical.

The group appears to have more than 15,000 members. Following is a sample of the discussions.

fbgroup.jpg

I suspect that Zuckerberg is crafting his next open letter to address the recent criticisms, and it won't include another useless Facebook group as a salve.

We should give Facebook some space to figure out its next moves. This is uncharted waters, and a young company running on adrenaline fueled by those who praise and fear it as the next Google.

The guiding principles or Constitution for the social Web are taking shape. Facebook has to decide whether it is more for or against the people, whether generating advertising revenue on the backs of users with Beacon as it is currently defined is fair trade. Your move Mr. Zuckerberg.