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11/26/2007
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How Your Creepy Ex-Co-Workers Will Kill Facebook

Columnist Cory Doctorow describes how Facebook and other social networks have built-in self-destructs: They make it easy for you to be found by the people you're looking to avoid.

Facebook's "platform" strategy has sparked much online debate and controversy. No one wants to see a return to the miserable days of walled gardens, when you couldn't send a message to an AOL subscriber unless you, too, were a subscriber, and when the only services that made it were the ones that AOL management approved. Those of us on the "real" Internet regarded AOL with a species of superstitious dread, a hive of clueless noobs waiting to swamp our beloved Usenet with dumb flamewars (we fiercely guarded our erudite flamewars as being of a palpably superior grade), the wellspring of an endless geyser of free floppy disks and CDs, the kind of place where the clueless management were willing and able to -- for example -- alienate every Vietnamese speaker on Earth by banning the use of the word "Phuc" (a Vietnamese name) because naughty people might use it to evade the chatroom censors' blocks on the f-bomb.

Facebook is no paragon of virtue. It bears the hallmarks of the kind of pump-and-dump service that sees us as sticky, monetizable eyeballs in need of pimping. The clue is in the steady stream of emails you get from Facebook: "So-and-so has sent you a message." Yeah, what is it? Facebook isn't telling -- you have to visit Facebook to find out, generate a banner impression, and read and write your messages using the halt-and-lame Facebook interface, which lags even end-of-lifed email clients like Eudora for composing, reading, filtering, archiving and searching. Emails from Facebook aren't helpful messages, they're eyeball bait, intended to send you off to the Facebook site, only to discover that Fred wrote "Hi again!" on your "wall." Like other "social" apps (cough eVite cough), Facebook has all the social graces of a nose-picking, hyperactive six-year-old, standing at the threshold of your attention and chanting, "I know something, I know something, I know something, won't tell you what it is!"

If there was any doubt about Facebook's lack of qualification to displace the Internet with a benevolent dictatorship/walled garden, it was removed when Facebook unveiled its new advertising campaign. Now, Facebook will allow its advertisers use the profile pictures of Facebook users to advertise their products, without permission or compensation. Even if you're the kind of person who likes the sound of a benevolent dictatorship this clearly isn't one.

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.

The debate about redeeming Facebook starts from the assumption that Facebook is snowballing toward critical mass, the point at which it begins to define "the Internet" for a large slice of the world's netizens, growing steadily every day. But I think that this is far from a sure thing. Sure, networks generally follow Metcalfe's Law: "the value of a telecommunications network is proportional to the square of the number of users of the system." This law is best understood through the analogy of the fax machine: a world with one fax machine has no use for faxes, but every time you add a fax, you square the number of possible send/receive combinations (Alice can fax Bob or Carol or Don; Bob can fax Alice, Carol and Don; Carol can fax Alice, Bob and Don, etc).

But Metcalfe's law presumes that creating more communications pathways increases the value of the system, and that's not always true (see Brook's Law: "Adding manpower to a late software project makes it later").

Having watched the rise and fall of SixDegrees, Friendster, and the many other proto-hominids that make up the evolutionary chain leading to Facebook, MySpace, et al, I'm inclined to think that these systems are subject to a Brook's-law parallel: "Adding more users to a social network increases the probability that it will put you in an awkward social circumstance." Perhaps we can call this "boyd's Law" for danah boyd, the social scientist who has studied many of these networks from the inside as a keen-eyed net-anthropologist and who has described the many ways in which social software does violence to sociability in a series of sharp papers.

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