A lot of people interested in free software, and user autonomy and network services are very worried about Facebook. Folks are worried for the same reason that so many investors are interested: the networks effects brought by hundreds of millions of folks signed up to use the service.
Network effects — the concept that a good or service increases in value as more people use it — are not a new problem for free software. Software developers target Microsoft Windows because that is where the large majority of users are. Users with no love for Microsoft and who are otherwise sympathetic to free software use Windows because programs they need will only run there.
Folks worried about Facebook are afraid for similar reasons. Sure, you can close down your Facebook account and move to Diaspora. But who will you talk to there? You can already hear people complaining about Facebook the same way they’ve been complaining about Windows or Office for years. People feel that their hands are tied and that their software, and their social network, will be determined by what everybody is doing.
I’m worried about Facebook. But I’m not too intimidated by Facebook’s network effects for two reasons.
First, using Facebook doesn’t preclude using anything else.
Twitter has enormous overlapping functionality with Facebook. Sure, people use the systems very differently. But they both ask you to create lists of friends and followers and are designed around sending and receiving short status messages. Millions of people do both and both systems are thriving. For the millions of people who use both Facebook and Twitter, the two services have had to negotiate their marginal utility in a world they share with the other one. People decide that Twitter is for certain types of short messages and Facebook is for others. But these arrangements shift over time.
And the relationships between services aren’t always peaceful coexistence. Remember Friendster? Remember Orkut? Remember Tribe? Remember MySpace? MySpace, and all the others, are great examples of how social networks die. They very slowly fade away. MySpace users signed up for Facebook accounts and used both. They almost never just switched. Over time, as one platform became more attractive than the other, for many complicated reasons, attention and activity shifted. People logged in on MySpace less and Facebook more and, eventually, realized they were effectively no longer MySpace users. Anyone that has been on the Internet long enough to watch a few of these shifts from one platform to another knows that they’re not abrupt — even if they can be set in motion by a particular event or action. Users of social networking sites simply don’t have to choose in the way that a person choosing to boot Windows and GNU/Linux does.
I’m sure the vast majority of people with Diaspora accounts use Facebook actively. This is not a problem for Diaspora. It is how Diaspora — or whatever else eventually achieves what many of us hoped Diaspora would — could win.
Second, Facebook is for the ephemeral.
Facebook is primarily used for information that was produced very recently. This week if not today. If not this hour. Facebook has an enormous amount of data that users have fed it that may be hard to get out and move somewhere else. But most people don’t care very much about having any regular access to the large majority of this information. What people care deeply about is having access to the data that they and their friends created today. And that data can just as easily be created somewhere else tomorrow. Or, with the right tools, created just as easily in both places.
Compare this to something like Windows where moving away would require learning, converting, and perhaps even writing, new software. Perhaps even in new programming languages that most developers don’t know yet. Compared to Windows, a migration away from Facebook will be easy.
Facebook’s photo galleries are an example of an important place where this holds less well. Social network information — i.e., the list of who is friends with who — is another example of something that is persistently valuable. That said, people really enjoy the act of finding and friending. Indeed, this process was part of the initial draw of Facebook and other social networks.
None of this means that Facebook is over. It doesn’t even mean that its ascendancy will be slowed. What it does mean is that Facebook is vulnerable to the next thing more than many technology firms that have benefited from network effects in the past. If users are given compelling reasons to switch to something else, they can with less trouble and they will.
That compelling reason might be a new social network with better features or an awesome distributed architecture that allows freedom for users and the ability of those users to benefit from new and fantastic things that Facebook’s overseers would never let them have and without the things Facebook’s users suffer through today. Or it might be a sexier proprietary box to store users’ private information. It doesn’t mean that I’m not worried about Facebook. I remain deeply worried. It’s just not very hard for me to imagine the end.