Radical Idea: Open source social networking

Apr 17, 2012

In some ways, the Internet is an open, unlimited space. But it can also feel very private, especially when communicating one on one, or conducting personal business like paying a bill, or doing your taxes. As more and more of our daily lives go digital, some big questions arise. What are we giving up? What truly is the cost of our being so dependent on it, and who is truly benefiting from how much we’re glued to our screens? Author Jason Benlevi explores this question in his book, Too Much Magic: Pulling the Plug on the Cult of Tech. He spoke with KALW’s Ben Trefny.

BEN TREFNY: A lot of money is spent to try to attract people to these ad-driven services, whether it's Facebook or whether it's Google, so obviously there's a lot of profit to be made within these industries that are using us consumers as products. How do you see that use of brain power and financial resources?

JASON BENLEVI: When I look at the level of innovation that happened in the early 90s toward computing, and how we were inventing entirely new categories of applications and uses and that we put multimedia on computers. And our biggest innovation of the last decade has really been social networking, which is really not that complicated a technology – it's really pretty lightweight stuff – and even the implementations we're seeing are pretty ugly and not well conceived. Facebook is probably the only application that people regularly hate.

TREFNY: There's not a function on Facebook for “hate.”

BENLEVI: No, there's no function for hate. Except that usually, whenever they roll out a change that doesn't make sense to people, it usually doesn't work very well. Certainly, timeline may be one of the ugliest graphical approaches I've ever seen. And when you compare that to the effort that it took when the Macintosh was being invented, as an example, to make it simple for people, to make it elegant, to make it beautiful, to make it something that people wanted to engage with because it was all of those things, because it was artful. And then compare that to what Facebook looks like, you can see that the talent is not being well spent, whether artistically or on programming to really go and create something magnificent.

TREFNY: So, aside from just the individual cost that one pays for being part of these commercial enterprises, there's a larger social cost, you're saying.

BENLEVI: Yeah, I think there's a larger social cost in a lot of different ways. I think that we've created, certainly with Facebook, we've created this dependency with one resource.  You should be able to pick what your social application looks like to you. Just like you get to pick what email client you're using, or what web browser you like to use. There should be a common network behind all of social networking, so you can pick what the front looks like to you, you can pick something noncommercial. Like as an example, the Mozilla browser, the Firefox browser, it's totally free. It's done by a nonprofit – a lot of smart people who have cleverly come up with this so you don't have to go and be tied to one platform, works with everything. The servers on the back end, the stuff that's delivering you the web content, is very often Apache, which is an open source application. And so we have this whole ecosystem that has already been established that you don't have to go through any vendor in order to have a lot of functionality. I think that's a much better model for us to move to and then, if people decide they want to be sifted through by Facebook and have stuff marketed toward them, that's their choice. But what we need to do is give people a choice to have some alternative and still be able to communicate with the people on Facebook. And I think that's where we really have some work to be done.

TREFNY: So how do you imagine a social networking platform such as Myspace or Facebook, would look as an open source platform?

BENLEVI: Well, I think what would be different is the business model. Instead of it all being on Facebook servers, and Facebook decides what the look is today, whatever you use as an ISP or your phone company or your cable company, you maybe pay 50 cents a month or some nominal fee that's buried in your billing that would allow them to set up a root service for you to go and do social networking. On top of that, you'd use your normal browser, but you'd be able to pick what you have as an interface to do that – just like an app, very much like the app space which us a common network behind it. So you pick it like an app, you decide what you want it to look like. You decide where you want your information to sit – do you want it to sit on your ISP or do you want your personal information to sit right on your computer? Or maybe there's a more innovative way to do that. The idea is just to break up that all of this sits with one company, and that's not hard to do.

TREFNY: How far away do you think we are from all this? And how will we find it?

BENLEVI: Technically, we could be there tomorrow. In terms of working out the business model and building out the ecosystem, it'll take a little bit more than that. And getting people on board – we see adoption rates that are kind of silly-crazy on the net with people changing resources quickly. Just look at Myspace – look at how Myspace dominated the domain for a short period of time, and now it's pretty much gone

TREFNY: Yeah, what's Myspace?

BENLEVI: Yeah, right, exactly! So, there's such fast cycles that I'm not worried about that part of it. In terms of marketing, there's great grassroots marketing that just happens on the net. And given the bad vibes, shall we say, that Facebook puts out – between the changes of design that alienate people, the bad user interface, the spying which people are getting to become aware of – not yet fully aware of – I don' think it would take much for people to do something else.