How much protection does Facebook have from a fork?

The lock-in of data may be more powerful than the old lock-in of software, but to open source advocates not all lock-ins are created equal. Theirs are bad. Ours are good.

The growing backlash against Facebook offers a great case study on switching costs in an open source world. (Picture from

As my ZDNet colleagues have been reporting for weeks now, Facebook pulled a bait-and-switch on millions of kids, who thought they were on the equivalent of a private network but found their most intimate secrets exposed, not just to the Web, but to advertisers for profit.

Worse, users feel stuck. They can't get their stuff out of Facebook, unless they have the programming talents of a Jason Perlow.

How serious is it? When Betty White is joking about it, as serious as a heart attack.

My CNET colleague Matt Asay thinks this is no big deal. The lock-in of data may be more powerful than the old lock-in of software, but to Matt not all lock-ins are created equal. There are their lock-ins, and then there are our lock-ins. Theirs are bad. Ours are good.

There is evidence on Matt's side. Wikipedia. No matter how many of us complain how loudly about Wikipedia's accuracy, or its allowance for porn, or its policies, we're not all rushing to Larry Sanger's Citizendium for our wiki encyclopedia knowledge. Wikipedia has data lock-in.

Does Facebook have that? Is its lead insurmountable, or is it as vulnerable as MySpace turned out to be?

Diaspora is among those projects now asking the questions. They asked for $10,000 in start-up contributions. They have $87,000 and counting.

Diaspora is starting just as Facebook did, on college campuses. The four NYU founders have the look, and they have the publicity build-up.

Do they have enough to take over the world, or at least get money from Google? I don't know. Traditionally second-mover advantage -- the guy overtaking the first-mover -- is awfully powerful. Google beat Yahoo and hasn't looked back.

But what if Google had turned around, five years ago, and revealed that it was, in fact, evil? That's the way a lot of Facebook users feel right now.

It's going to take time to overtake Facebook. Years and years. Before the NYU kids get a sniff of Facebook's scale they're going to have some gray hairs, and some of that hair they have today will be staring at them from inside their combs.

Think they have a chance? Think anyone does? It's an important question. Open source is a tool that aims to reduce lock-in, but does it really?