Friday, April 23, 2010

I fear facebook owning my relationships, not my identity

There has been a lot of talk by Dave Winer and others about the idea that with the f8 Facebook release that Facebook wants to own my identity on the web.

In thinking about this overnight, I realized that Facebook, with its latest release has actually clarified to me that they no longer want to own my identity. They have essentially gotten rid of all of the restrictions on how I import and export the data about me from Facebook. There are no more rules that say I can't, for example, export my pictures or other data to another application.

The one thing that the rules still prohibit me from doing is moving my friend list to another application. Essentially, they own my address book.

What I realized about this is that this is a much bigger deal. I really don't care that much if they keep my pictures. But by encouraging me to build up my social network in Facebook, and then saying I can't export it, they are really positioning Facebook as the unbreakable center of my online universe. If they succeed in making me use Facebook for real productive uses, as is signaled by their Microsoft Docs partnership, then I will really be locked into them. Then I have to think, can I trust them. Will they be evil in a Googley "don't be evil" sort of way? They haven't made any such pledge, and even if they had, Mark Zuckerberg just doesn't feel like the touchy feely do-gooder type.

In a certain sense, this is not news. They have always wanted to own my relationships. But by eliminating all of the other restrictions, and by making Facebook much more broadly useful, they have brought this issue into full relief, and made clear what they really think is important. And I, for one, am quite worried about fully turning over my relationships to them.

Unfortunately, as a developer I am not sure I have much choice but to support it. In fact, I am quite sure we will support it. And that fact, and the fact that most of us in the developer community will do so for our own selfish, short term reasons, may be our collective undoing.


  1. Hmmm, that's not quite right. You can still export your friend list (and the profile info of your friends) using the Facebook REST API. It shouldn't take more than an hour of work to put together an app to export all that to some open format, so we can really say that Facebook is trying to prevent us from getting that info. As for the new "Like" feature of Facebook, I'm not quite seeing how this is revolutionary. They've been providing many ways to share content (using Facebook Connect among others) for many years and this new feature just seems like a different way to do the same thing.

  2. This is not about what you can do technically. That has not changed. This is about the rules, some of which have gotten stricter.

  3. I edited the copy to make this point more clear.

  4. "Unfortunately, as a developer I am not sure I have much choice but to support it."

    This is maybe the most critical point of your post, and it's a tough one. How far will developers want to go and play FB's game? Unfortunately, I reckon pretty far.

    I think that all these "social" applications are making more critical for software developers to reflect upon the need for elevated professional ethics.

    We must learn to treat with care and respect the data that users trust our applications with. This will imply refusing do to certain apparently benign things, like prompting people for their e-mail's account credentials to load their friends list, just because it is not ethical to do so.

  5. David,

    Indeed, I may have burried the lead because I think you are absolutely right. That is the most critical point. I wish I had a good answer to the problem.

  6. Actually I think the effect is the most important point and not the cause...

    "And that fact, and the fact that most of us in the developer community will do so for our own selfish, short term reasons, may be our collective undoing."

    This is definitely the case with Apple's app store. So, a good question would be "what are we going to do about it, sell out and undo ourselves or come up with an alternative or simply not play their game?".

  7. There were database companies before Oracle but it was the "relational" database that made their CEO richer than Bill Gates (even if it was just for a day). Facebook is not just selling data, they are selling YOUR Relational Data and for big bucks. If you think their business model has to do with those adverts on the sidebar you are just being tricked so that you don't see the real deal that's going on. Every major information gathering agency is buying up this data.


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