Proposal for an Alternative to Facebook

Pretty much everyone I know, now including investors, is annoyed and disappointed with Facebook, for a whole host of reasons.

In truth, Facebook has become the Microsoft of social networking — bloated, monolithic and monopolistic to its core.

So what would it take to offer a viable alternative, to unseat FB from its throne?

Google+, of course, has approached the beachhead of public enthusiasm, crashed upon the shores of our collective ennui, and finally dribbled back out to sea to join the vast ocean of other failed Google initiatives. So we know what the answer doesn’t look like.

So what would it look like?

How about this?

  1. An open social networking standard — something like HTML, RSS and Email.

    Such a standard would allow competition and cooperation among peers, and would allow us to create a social networking web consisting of small pieces loosely joined rather than a single, monolithic, for-profit service.

  2. An unlimited number of competing apps and services that implement this standard.

    An open standard would loosen up competition, so just as there is no limit on the number of Web browsers, the number of email clients, or the number of email services available today, we would have a multitude of apps and services to choose from.

  3. A number of business models to choose from.

    We could have free, open source, and for-profit software. And we could have services run as non-profits, as for-profits based on advertising, and for-profits based on subscription models (allowing users to pay to use a service, and avoid the ads).

  4. A unique, portable identifier for each participating person or entity.

    This identifier would need to be independent of any particular service. In other words, these identifiers would be as portable as URLs or telephone numbers — and more portable than email addresses — allowing users to move from service to service without having to re-identify themselves.

  5. Transparent ownership of identities.

    As with Facebook, there would need to be assurances that identifiers are not faceless handles, but that they represent people and organizations that exist in the real world, and have associated real world identities.

  6. Clear and inalienable ownership of all data by the generating entity.

    Any data posted by a person or entity would be owned by that person or entity, with copyrights controlled by the owner.

  7. Data portability.

    Part of the standard would define a data format that would allow a user to keep all of their data on a personal computing device, always and automatically kept up-to-date, so that failure of a service, or separation of a user from a service, would cause no data loss. Such a personal data store would also allow a user to move from one service to another, or one app to another, at any time, without any data loss.

  8. Personal and public groups.

    A personal group would consist of a set of identities specified by a specific user, and visible only to that user. A public group would be open to users who want to join, on either an unrestricted or administered basis.

  9. Multiple feeds and profiles for each user.

    Each user should be able to define multiple data feeds (professional, family, and friends, for example), and should be able to specify any new data to go to any combination of feeds. Each feed could have a tailored variant of the user’s profile. Each feed could be public or private. Public feeds would be available to any interested party, with no further authorization required from the user, in a way similar to Twitter and RSS feeds today. Private feeds would be available only to identities specifically authorized by a user. In both cases, subscription lists would always be available to the user providing the data.

  10. Open and closed exchange services.

    Of course, none of this would be any good if data were not able to pass seamlessly and quickly from one service to another, in the way that email is transported between services today. Organizations could implement closed exchange services on their private networks, in a way similar to private email networks today, but open exchanges would have to be available as well, outside of corporate firewalls.

  11. Reasonable security assurances.

    All of these standards, services and applications should provide reasonable security assurances to users, without being onerous to providers. Users shouldn’t see their private data needlessly exposed to strangers; on the other hand, this sort of social network should not be used for passwords, social security numbers, intensely private data or data whose value is dependent on its secrecy (plans for the iPhone 6, for example). The primary purpose of a policy like this is to encourage providers of all sizes to enter this space without having to worry excessively about crippling litigation.

So, what do you think? Am I nuts? Any value to something like this? Anything worth stating at a high level that I’ve left out? Too ambitious? Anyone with deep pockets interested in getting something like this off the ground?

June 13, 2012

Next: Adaptive Startup for the Mac