Moving towards an open Facebook (part 2)

A couple people have been writing about Facebook’s moves towards increased openness and transparency, including Chris Messina and John McCrea who are both influential and insightful advocates for a more open Web (I have already written about David Recordon’s views in my first post in this unintended series). I came across their recent posts in which they talk about Facebook’s moves towards greater transparency and openness which I want to write about, partly because of the difficulties I have with this notion of Facebook as transparent and open.

Mark Zuckerberg.jpgI can attribute my suspicion of Facebook pretty accurately to the recent furor about its terms of use and a nagging feeling that I can’t trust Facebook completely with my content. If it could pull a stunt like that once, it could do it again. That being said if I take Mark Zuckerberg and Co. at their word, Facebook has either turned away from the Dark Side or it is getting better at being more open and transparent (not to mention less insistent on taking more rights from Facebook’s users than it should).

Messina certainly seems to be convinced that Facebook is on the right path:

The people within Facebook not only believe in what they’re doing but are on the leading edge of Generation Open. It’s not merely an age thing; it’s a mindset thing. It’s about having all your references come from the land of the internet rather than TV and becoming accustomed to — and taking for granted — bilateral communications in place of unidirectional broadcast forms. Where authority figures used to be able to get away with telling you not to talk back, Generation Open just turns to Twitter and lets the whole world know what they think.

But it’s not just that the means of publishing have been democratized and the new medium is being mastered; change is flowing from the events that have shaped my generation’s understanding of economics, identity, and freedom.

Talking to people at Facebook (in light of the arc of their brief history) you might not expect openness to come culturally. Similarly, talking to Microsoft you could presume the same. In the latter case, you’d be right; in the former, I’m not so sure.

See, the people who populate Facebook are largely from Generation Open. They grew up in an era where open source wasn’t just a bygone conclusion, but it was central to how many of them learned to code. It wasn’t in computer science classes at top universities — those folks ended up at Arthur Anderson, Accenture or Oracle (and probably became equally boring). Instead, the hobbyist kids cut their teeth writing WordPress plugins, Firefox extensions, or Greasemonkey scripts. They found success because of openness.

That Zuckerberg et al talk about making the web a more “open and social place” where it’s easy to “share and connect” is no surprise: it’s the open, social nature of the web that has brought them such success, and will be the domain in which they achieve their magnum opus. They are the original progeny of the open web, and its natural heirs.

(Chris Messina’s blog post is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License)

McCrea is a self-confessed Facebook fanboy and is convinced that Facebook is going to be a big part of the increasingly open Web:

And Facebook, which could have used it’s market leadership position to attempt to build “Walled Garden 2.0,” instead has been moving boldly down an ever more open pathway. My friend David Recordon said it well recently in a post entitled Facebook in 2010: no longer a walled garden.

Okay, I’ve gone over the top with this post, but I’m glad I got this off my chest. Why is all of this significant? The Web is going social (with a big help from Facebook), and the Social Web is going open (along with Facebook). That means we’re on the cusp of a massive wave of change that will unleash an innovation explosion.

There is certainly the potential and the opportunity for Facebook to become a truly open social network. Its move towards a more open governance structure through its proposed Facebook Principles and its Statement of Rights and Responsibilities are definitely moves in the right direction despite concerns about what the two documents say in real terms.

One thing continues to bother me and this is an apparent failure to take the legal stuff seriously. The emphasis is on what Facebook is saying and not so much on what its terms provide for. This is just naive. The problem with this is that those terms remain the legal framework the site operates with and if the terms contain onerous licenses, for example, then they trump whatever Mark Zuckerberg may say, particularly if the same lawyers who drafted the terms are called upon to enforce them. What Facebook should have done is not to have reinstated the old terms but to have had its lawyers prepare a less onerous set, perhaps by removing the offending provisions from the then-revised set (heck, I could have done it for them and produced a more reasonable terms of use). Reinstating the current terms may well be an interim measure but Facebook just replaced a bad terms of use with another bad terms of use. This says something about its commitment to change, to me at least.

That being said, Facebook doesn’t have to do anything. It has chosen to make changes which the vast majority of its 175 million users are oblivious to. That still says something about its commitment to effect some kind of change for the better. How open Facebook will become remains to be seen. In the meantime this image from Recordon’s post serves as a reminder how the Web could look in another year:

Open stack.png






2 responses to “Moving towards an open Facebook (part 2)”

  1. factoryjoe avatar

    I certainly am sympathetic to your skepticism. I agree that Facebook still has much to do to become truly more open — but I think it's also important to realize that “openness” is largely in the eye of the beholder.

    On the one hand, they desire to make the service more open for sharing — to make it easy for people to move their content in and out of the service. On the other, there's open source/web advocates that also want to make sure that the underlying protocols that Facebook uses are interoperable and non-proprietary. Two types of open — both meeting the definition.

    Still, w/r/t to the legal bit, that's hard, since most law and terms of services are designed to protect one party over another — especially when Facebook has resources that I'm sure some people would love to have an excuse to sue to gain access to. Openness in business is also something that hasn't really been done that much before — at least in the consumer web. Facebook gets extra scrutiny because they must match their rhetoric with real behavior, but other web services are equally closed and have perhaps worse or more onerous terms of service by comparison.

    This is new ground; I believe that whoever figures out this new landscape first will reap a great deal of benefits. The generation of folks working at Facebook seem young and naive enough to dispense with many of the previously “perceived” protections of the past and blaze into the future — but it's a tall order fraught with challenges and uncertainly. Indeed, time will tell, but I do think that we'll see Facebook make more overt progress in this regard in 2009 than many other of their competitors.

  2. pauljacobson avatar

    Hi Chris

    Thanks for commenting. I have been thinking about Facebook's terms and its approach quite a bit more since this post. I actually did a quick and dirty comparison between Google's terms of use (I see Google's terms as a good starting point) and Facebook's current terms and then also looked at the draft Statement of Rights and Responsibilities and the Principles in a post on my business blog:

    The proposed terms of use (for lack of a better term) are very encouraging and the approach Facebook as adopted is very interesting from a lawyer's perspective. It is certainly enough to convince me that Facebook may not be the epitome of evil on the social Web. I reserve that place for LinkedIn which has terms of use that make Facebook's reviled and retracted terms look tame. I'll probably feel even better about Facebook once the current town hall process is complete and the new legal framework is in place but, as I mentioned, it is very encouraging.

    I would like to see more portability possible, that is to say an opportunity to move more data out of Facebook (I'm thinking specifically about friends list and contact details) but from what I understand in the news lately, Facebook is opening up more and more of its previously closed apis. That says something too.

What do you think?

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