Private Social Network: An Oxymoron?

Participating in social media has always involved a balancing act between personal privacy and public information. Keep your information too private and you risk not being able to fully participate in the benefits of social media. On the other hand, putting yourself out there too much can have serious consequences, both personal and professional. Most users have had to work out their own privacy compromises, either holding back information that they’d otherwise like to share or maintaining multiple accounts with various levels of privacy…or not participating at all.

The delicate balance involves a complex interplay between people and the companies that host their information. Sure, social networks all have privacy policies that they have to adhere to in order to win the trust of their users and keep them coming back, but as this table of the growth of Facebook’s privacy policy shows, these policies often become more and more bloated and difficult to read as time goes by and as the site expands its privacy policy to respond to the needs of advertisers. As advertisers desire more and more access to personal data, more and more personal data inevitably becomes “public” by default, as so beautifully demonstrated in this graph.

As you’re probably well aware, Facebook’s latest changes that have made it extremely difficult for average users to keep their data private has caused quite an uproar. Over the past two years, Facebook has moved toward exposing more and more data, a move that has ticked-off users (and some regulatory bodies) all over the globe. In fact, a week from today (May 31) has been declared “Quit Facebook Day,” a day on which users are being encouraged to wipe their profiles clean to protest Facebook’s privacy changes.

While the idea has gotten a huge amount of attention in the media, it’s not exactly a new story: The New York Times ran an article about the Great Facebook Exodus last year. To date, the “Quit Facebook” movement has attracted only a tiny fraction of “quitters” (a little over 11,000 out of almost 400 million active users as of the day this column was written) and it remains to be seen how far it’ll go in the next week.

Chances are that the “quitters” aren’t going to bring down Facebook…yet. Why? Because most people are probably willing to make the Faustian bargain that exchanges privacy for access. While some die-hard privacy advocates are willing to erase themselves from the grid, most folks probably just don’t care enough (or know enough) to make the effort.

Since the beginning of advertising-supported media, we’ve all had to compromise between being annoyed by ads or irritated by invasions of our privacy in exchange for free content or free access. We’ve all had to negotiate the slippery slope of privacy to reap the benefits of these services that, in all fairness, need to do something to keep paying the bills. We all make the choice: drop out, or tune in and give up something of ourselves in exchange.

But is this truly the future of social media? Will consumers continue to give up more and more of their privacy in order to maintain their social networks and keep themselves distracted with FarmVille?

Maybe not. A new effort called The Diaspora* Project may represent the future of social media. Started by four “talented young nerds” at NYU as a reaction to Facebook’s creeping privacy incursions, Diaspora* is being designed as a completely new and open social networking system. Users will be able to set up their own “seed” servers that allow them complete control over the information they share, information that will be protected all along the way by “strong encryption,” according to the video on its site. The vision is of a decentralized network controlled by open-source software, operated by its users, and owned by no one.

Sound familiar? It should: it’s basically the same idea as the Internet itself. And if history is any kind of indication, it’s exactly the kind of system that may represent the future of social media.

Today, the Web and the Internet have become virtually ubiquitous, but you don’t have to look back more than a decade or so to a time where competing closed networks ruled the online world. America Online, CompuServe, Prodigy, Delphi, and a host of other proprietary services held the lion’s share of users in their “walled gardens” and competed based on cost and exclusive content and/or features. Users could exchange e-mail between the services (and with early Internet users) but for the most part, if your friends were on AOL and you wanted to chat with them, play games with them, or kibitz with them on message boards, you had to do so on AOL. And why not? The Internet back then was a scary place that was hard to log on to and hard to navigate. The Net was a place for nerds.

Eventually, as we all know, all that began to change as the services gradually opened themselves up to the Internet. Before long, these closed services became more and more irrelevant as the Internet became easier to use and sites such as Yahoo arose to make it easier to navigate. Before long AOL, Prodigy, Delphi, and others became irrelevant; many gradually faded away.

If we look at the current state of social media, there are a lot of parallels. Essentially, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn are akin to the closed systems of the old days of online communications. Sure, you can swap data between them through various APIs that link them together, but if you really want to hang with your Facebook buddies, you have to do so on Facebook. At least for now.

And for now, it’s doubtful whether or not anyone at Facebook is worried. When Diaspora* launches at the end of the summer (according to its Kickstarter page), chances are it’s going to be kind of nerdy, unpolished, and a little bit too geeky for the average Facebook user. And I don’t mean that in a nasty way: it’s just how these projects usually go in their early stages. But that’s OK: being a little rough around the edges is good. It’s a sign that you’re breaking new ground.

Will Diaspora* be “The Great Savior of Social Media”? Maybe, or maybe not. But considering how the history of online technology tends to favor open systems and considering how consumers are becoming more and more savvy about their privacy, it’s inevitable that at least something like Diaspora* will be the future of social media.

Scoff all you want, but think back to 1994 and remember how many CompuServe users were probably scoffing at this whole “Internet thing” back then. There probably wasn’t a lot of scoffing going on in June of 2009 when CompuServe was finally obsolete. Change happens. Get used to it.

Oh, and by the way: TV as we know it is on the way out, too. Google TV just killed it.

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