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i thought a lot about social networks recently. i want to write some of these down here.


during the last few decades, computers and internet made deep changes to our society, to how we communicate, to how we live. electronic communication has existed for a very long time, starting with bulletin board systems (starting in the 1970s), usenet (starting 1980) and internet relay chat (starting 1990). later, after the advent of the internet to public (in form of the world wide web) around 1995, new services emerged, like the ICQ instant messaging service and, one of the earliest “modern” social networks. later, myspace became well-known, as well as business-oriented networks such as linkedin, and later facebook (starting in the united states, later going worldwide) and studivz (started in germany and german-speaking countries).

facebook is the most known representant nowadays, but there are many more social networks out there – the wikipedia list for example contains 709 entries. depending on in which area you live, some social networks are much more popular amoung your local friends than others. (an article about a study analyzing the situation in germany some time ago can be read here.)

social networks play a more and more important role. you need to be connected to your friends to find out what’s going on. to see who’s going with whom, who’s a “friend” of whom, what’s in and what not, where and when are the parties. this does not only applies to the young generation anymore, especially not to just a small subset, but to a large part of society. it is not uncommon in some areas that even your parents or grandparents are on social networks. social networks allow you to see what happens to your family, friends, to people you know but don’t have much contact with anymore. you find out who of your high school friends is marrying whom, you see photos from vacations of people you haven’t seen since kindergarten, you find out that someone you knew from university got a job, or find out that some guy you met on a vacation ten years ago now became father. a lot of these things you would have missed without a social network, maybe found out about later by chance, but more probably never heard about them at all.

so definitely, social networks play an important role.


there are two fundamentally different criticisms one can write about.

the first one is about on the change of privacy, on the extended focus. things you say, you do, are now not just noted (and more or less quickly forgotten) by the people being present at that moment, but often dragged into your social network, shared with all your friends there, which might include distant friends you met at kindergarten, colleagues at work, many people with whom you are studying, your neighbor, your extended family, or whoever else can see what happens on your profile. you do something stupid, someone takes a photo of it, puts it into the network, tags you and everyone can see what you did. you wrote something stupid or very private, accidently on someone’s wall instead in a private message, and suddenly many people know about it. and not only that, depending on the privacy settings of the social networks, maybe the whole internet can read or see these things. but i don’t want to write about these topics today.

the other big problem, from my point of view, is the data ownership. think about it. why should a company create such a social network? provide lots of computing power to allow people to communicate, to search for friends, to exchange photos, etc., and that essentially for free? companies want to make money. in fact, need to make money, to pay for the servers, for the programmers, for the support people. of course, there are ads, which make some of the money. without ads it is essentially impossible to run a huge network. but ads are not everything. what is also very important is the collection of information. information on people, their age, gender, preferences, interests, friends, what they like or not, what they find interesting. if the state would try to get this information, people would protest against it. but on the internet, they give it to a company essentially for free. of course, it is true that many of these information pieces are available on the net anyway, at least for people like me. but then, if you have to collect them yourself, this costs a lot of time. if i have a profile at some social network and enter everything there into a form, they get all the information in a well-defined format which can easily be processed.

consider for example facebook. if you have a facebook account, they usually know your name, birthdate, email adress, gender, sexual interest, where you live, work, what your marital status is, who your friends are, which websites you like. some people also use facebook as their search machine, so facebook also knows what you search for. and depending on how websites included the facebook “like” button, facebook knows which websites you visit. if you’re logged in at the same time, they can combine that information with your profile to see what you’re doing on the web. since some time, facebook also tries to find out your location, by encouraging you to tell it to them, and also tell your friends’ locations to them. so they can also track you in the real world. besides these things, facebook is also known (and often criticized) for their very liberal view of privacy, and for storing all information without really allowing to delete it.

or consider google+. if you have an account there, google knows your personal information such as name, email adress, birthdate, … but besides that, google knows much more about you. google is the number one search engine in many parts of the world, and so most people use it to search for something. if you use their search engine while you are logged in at google+, they can connect that information. moreover, google analytics is a free service aimed at website administrators, which allows them to see how many people look at their website, what they do there, where they come from, etc. but it also allows google to see what people do. and if you have a google account (not just google+!), they can actually see what you are doing on the web. a huge amount of websites uses some google service or another. many google services are included by using some javascript, which is loaded from a google server, and so google can see where you are on the web and what you are doing there.

think about it. if the state would send out secret agents which would follow any person, look at what they do, where they are at any moment, what they look at. like in 1984. would you like that? i guess, most of you wouldn’t. but yet, many people allow google and/or facebook to do exactly that, without spending a thought about it.

a possible solution.

so now what? should one simply try not to use facebook or google? stick to smaller social networks, smaller services, which cannot track you that well? especially using smaller social networks would destroy a lot: many of your friends or people you know might not be in your network anymore, maybe forcing you to have accounts for many different social networks. this would make life much more complicated (which people do not want to), and is in practice just annoying. so this is not a solution.

if one wants to use social networks at all, one does not want such fragmentation. but one also does not want certain entities, such as big corporations or even the state, to collect all that information at one place. so the best solution would be to distribute the information in some way, splitting it up so that single entities such as google or facebook or the state cannot access most of it, but you can still see information about your friends, still contact them, communicate with them.

there is in fact a social network designed like this: diaspora. everyone can run their own diaspora server, you can have friends on any other diaspora server, you see what they do, you can communicate. every server can only see what’s going on the server, and what’s going on with the friends of the people having an account on that server, as far as these friends allow the people with an account on this server to see their actions.

unfortunately, when the first alpha version of diaspora was released, it had many vital security problems, making it essentially not useable for anyone with the slightest sensitivity for privacy and security. i don’t know what the current status is, i hope it dramatically increased. but even though the reference implementation is not good, everyone can create their own implementation, which could then communicate with servers running the reference implementation, or also any other diaspora implementation. this is what makes diaspora very attractive: you are not forced to use or trust specific implementations and servers. still, diaspora is probably far from perfect. i guess that one could write books about how to design a very good open social network. i wouldn’t be surprised if there are even research projects working on such topics.

anyway. in my opinion, the future belongs to such open distributed social networks. as soon as such a network becomes useable enough, i will migrate to it.

(originally, i wanted to discuss properties of such open distributed social networks in more details, discuss which aspects are important, discuss security of information, etc. but i’m afraid if i would really do this, the result would be way too long for a single blog post. and it will take a lot of time to write this down in detail and to reach a good enough description and discussion of most aspects; time which i simply don’t really have.)

(and a note about myself: i’ve been using several different social networks in the past, most prominently facebook and studivz. except facebook, i’ve deleted all my accounts. i’d also like to delete the facebook account, since i don’t really trust and like facebook, but the lack of alternatives currently makes me staying there. i haven’t tried diaspora yet, but that’s still on my to-do-list, though i want to wait until that projects reaches a more stable state.)


felix wrote on july 16, 2011 at 17:13:

i forgot to add: such a open, distributed social network could also incorporate the blogosphere. for example, instead of forcing readers of my blog to log in to read certain parts, this could be included in such a network. certain friends there can then read these blog posts, without doing any extra log-in. maybe this would increase the number of such readers from three to some larger number :-)

felix wrote on july 29, 2011 at 18:31:

now google also has a page speed service, where they offer to host parts of a website on their server network to increase performance of people accessing the site. sounds nice – but also fits nicely in what i wrote above: if someone uses this service, google will know who visits that page. another source for collecting data, another step in direction of total control.