Category Archives: social media

My thoughts are my own — how to break up social network monopolies

3D Social Networking
3D Social Networking.
A few hours ago I came home from a meeting at Maklab entitled Blether about open source, Scotland and Paul Mason's "PostCapitalism", and my head has been buzzing ever since.

At some point during the meeting, Alistair Davidson said something about Web 2.0 essentially being about moving all software functionality to servers instead of focusing on selling programs (compare Gmail with old-fashioned email clients). A general discussion followed, and suddenly it all clicked into place for me: In an Open Source and social media context, we need to talk less about programs and more about data.

The reason no email client could ever become a monopoly was because the email protocol is quite simple, and any decent programmer can easily write an email client.

The reason it's so hard to compete with Facebook (even Google+ couldn't do it although Google threw lots of resources after it, and many other efforts such as Diaspora and Ello never really stood a chance) is because it's the social network you've built up inside it that's important, not the software itself. Lots of people would leave Facebook tomorrow if they could take their network with them, but they can't, so they don't.

Now imagine if your social network data -- your connexions, your photos, your posts, your likes and retweets -- were all held on a independent server (this could be run by the UN, by a charity financed by Google, by a network of volunteers or even by a private company owned by Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn in conjunction). This server wouldn't provide a nice interface -- you definitely wouldn't want to use it for your social networking -- but it would hold all your data and interact with all the social media websites.

So if you clicked "like" on a story in Facebook, the like would get stored on this server instead of Facebook's, and if you later decided to move to Google+ instead, your like would still be there (even if would potentially look rather different). Importantly, you wouldn't need to know which client your friend whose update you liked was using. Effectively, all the social networks would become one from a data point-of-view. Effectively, your thoughts would again be your own and you would simply allow social media clients to interact with them.

Some people would then use one social network client for everything, while others would still use Facebook for family and friends, LinkedIn for business, Twitter for thinking aloud, Flickr for DSLR photos, Instagram for smartphone photos, Spotify for music, etc., etc. It wouldn't matter, and you could change your clients at any time.

In order to survive, Facebook and the other websites would need to start competing on providing the best user experience rather than trying to help you build up a huge network and then make it difficult to leave. And if somebody decided to create an Open Source social media client, they would immediately have access to people's social networks and wouldn't need to spend time and money on building them up afresh on huge and expensive servers.

Of course Facebook and its competitors won't like this idea, but it's the kind of thing that antitrust legislation could force through. It would definitely be much more useful than breaking Facebook into two parts (because only the half that retained the network would survive).

Any objections?

The Economist’s “domestic problem”

"Looking for a future".
"Looking for a future".
The Economist's special report this week is about "the big decisions ahead for Britain", which is trying to conflate the Scottish independence referendum, the future EU referendum, the English attitude to immigrants and a couple of other issues. Perhaps tellingly, the cover photo shows three cricket players searching for a lost ball.

The Economist used to be an intelligent magazine with an internationalist outlook, but it seems recently to have become the local newspaper for the City of London, and their latest report is quite typical in that respect.

The leading article introducing the report demonstrates how parochial this publication has become:

On Scotland, Mr Cameron and Mr Miliband are on the side of Great Britain. But it is a decision for Scots. Although a Hibernian [sic!] state could more or less pay its way to begin with, assuming that it was able to hold on to most of the North Sea oil- and gas-fields, that resource is drying up. An independent Scotland would be too small to absorb shocks, whether to oil prices or to its banks. And the separatists cannot say how the country could run its affairs while keeping the pound. For their own sakes, Scottish voters should reject their political snake-oil.

I'm sure there are many people who are not aware of the difference between Hibernian and Caledonian, but if you want to give the impression that you're highly knowledgeable about the Scottish independence referendum, it's perhaps not the best start. (And the rest of this paragraph is of course poorly researched scaremongering sound-bites. As Business for Scotland recently wrote: "This is solid proof that oil price volatility isn’t a problem, for if it was, then at least once in 32 years Scotland’s revenues would have dropped below the average for the rest of the UK but it never did.")

The rest of the leader isn't much better. Bankers in London might think that "[i]n many ways Britain has a lot going for it right now. Whereas the euro zone’s economy is stagnant, Britain is emerging strongly from its slump. The government has used the crisis to trim the state", but this is hardly the consensus view elsewhere.

Their provincial outlook is also making them see the prospect of Scottish independence purely from a London point of view. For instance, the leading article contains this:

The most straightforward way Britain could shrivel is through Scotland voting to leave the United Kingdom next September. At a stroke, the kingdom would become one-third smaller. Its influence in the world would be greatly reduced. A country that cannot hold itself together is scarcely in a position to lecture others on how to manage their affairs.

The Kingdom of Scotland wouldn't become any smaller, and our influence in the world would be greatly increased. I'm not saying they should present it like this, but perhaps they should just once try to imagine how the referendum looks from the other side of the border.

It gets worse on page 4 of the report:

The country also needs to deal with a domestic problem. Ten years ago Scottish nationalism was in headlong retreat, but in a mere ten months from now Scotland will vote on whether to become an independent country. If it opts to leave, what remains of Britain will cut a greatly diminished figure on the world stage. Together with the referendum on EU membership, which may take place in 2017 or even sooner, the vote could set the country on a path to serious isolation.

A domestic problem? A domestic problem?!?! One of the two founding members of the Union leaving is now just a wee annoyance that needs to be dealt with?

Finally, on page 13 they write:

If Scotland votes for independence, what remains of Britain will be shaken. The state will be slimmed mathematically, as 8% of its economy and population disappears, together with 32% of its land and almost all of the North Sea oil- and gasfields. It will be diminished militarily. The Scots supply more than their fair share of uniformed men, and Britain’s nuclear-armed submarines are parked in a deep Scottish loch, with no decent alternative berth. It will also be humiliated. A country that cannot hold itself together is greatly diminished in the eyes of the world. Scottish independence would give succour to Welsh nationalists and would cause an existential crisis in Northern Ireland, where many unionists have Scottish roots.

I put this quote on Twitter two days ago together with this comment: "Is that supposed to be a reason to vote No?" and it got retweeted 68 times, so it must have touched a nerve. As Tweeter @CyberBrat1320 replied: "Stopping British militarism, encouraging Welsh nationalism, and creating an existential crisis in NI? Bring it on!" (I realise that it can sound a bit harsh to relish the prospect of causing an existential crisis there, but perhaps the disappearance of political Britishness could make them agree peacefully on a path for the future, either as part of a united Ireland or as an independent country in its own right, and surely that'd be a good thing.)

I really despair in The Economist. If they can only see Scotland from a London perspective, they shouldn't be surprised if we complain that London isn't representing us well on the world stage any more.

If they want to get their heads round what's happening up here, they need to stop limiting their research to watching the BBC. Ideally, they should hire a Scottish journalist to explain the referendum campaign to their international audience. What they're doing at the moment is frankly embarrassing.

Quis persuadebit ipsos persuasores?

Las manos
Las manos, a photo by tutescin on Flickr.

There was an interesting wee exchange of opinions on Twitter today:

Susan Stewart (ex-director of communications for Yes Scotland): Step away from your keyboards and talk to people! [...]

Wings Over Scotland: Y'know, whenever people say that I take it personally 🙁

Susan Stewart: don't. But winning the online debate won't win the referendum. Necessary but not sufficient. #yesscot #indyref

Wings Over Scotland: Of course it won't. But it's still invariably worded in an incredibly dispiriting way. Wish folk would take more care.

National Collective: Truth is we need both. 🙂

I'm reluctant to criticise Yes Scotland, because they do a lot of great work, but I don't think they're being helpful when they criticise those of us who are engaged in the on-line debate.

It might well be the case that most people on-line who can be persuaded have already been so, and that it's the off-line population that need convincing now. However, I think it's naive to think that persuasion is a one-off process, as this seems to imply.

The army of Yes foot soldiers aiming to knock every door in Scotland over the next 14 months needs constant encouragement, information about new questions raised in the debate, as well as an opportunity to talk to like-minded people, all of which is best done on-line.

After reading an informative article on Wings over Scotland, National Collective or Business for Scotland, I just feel much more energised than before -- I really don't think I would do more or better door-knocking if I stopped reading those articles. I also tend to write blog postings when I need to get something off my chest, or when I'm in a pensive mood, and in neither situation would I be likely to go out canvassing instead.

Also, many people who have been convinced of the merits of a Yes still don't feel ready to answer the potential questions that might arise on the doorstep, and where will they find the answers if not on-line?

When people criticise the time spent on-line, they need to ask themselves this question: Who will persuade the persuaders? (Or in Latin, Quis persuadebit ipsos persuasores?)

The Yes campaign is a genuine grassroots campaign because new ideas often originate on a blog, get disseminated on Twitter or on Facebook, and only eventually become official Yes Scotland policies. I think this is an immense strength, and it would be very harmful to the Yes side if somebody insisted that grassroots were only good for knocking doors, and ideas had to come from the top or from the (often biased) media.

I haven't met a single person on-line who has called for a stop to doorstep canvassing. All we're asking is that our on-line campaigning gets some respect, too. We're all doing all we can, and there's more than one way to do it!