Oct 26

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Everyone loves to hate Facebook.  With over a half billion users, Facebook has assimilated most connected adults in the modern world, and resistance has become futile.  Even for me — I must disclose that I actually like Facebook and how it connects me to distant friends and relatives.  But like anything popular, there’s no way to please all the people all the time, so Facebook is target for lots of criticism. 

Some of the negativity is well-deserved, especially regarding privacy issues.  Facebook’s mission is to “make the world more open and connected,” which is in direct conflict with the desire of most people to keep their private information private.  The problem isn’t that Facebook provides many different ways to share your information.  The problem is that Facebook assumes you want to share all of your information to everyone — by default.

Facebook is Too Eager to Share Your Information

Take the recent controversy over Facebook’s new facial recognition feature.  The plan is to scan the billions of images uploaded to Facebook and automatically tag all photos in which you appear.  Not only is it one step closer to Big Brother, but it could be used for malicious purposes.  For example, a stalker could snap a photo of an intended victim, upload it to Facebook, then use Facebook’s face recognition to discover that person’s name and other information.

Facebook plans to roll out the facial recognition feature system-wide.  Users would have to explicitly opt-out to avoid being scanned and tagged.  Brad Shimmin from Current Analysis believes that Facebook has still not learned a lesson from its many previous privacy mishaps.

Open-Source Facebook

In response to user frustration with Facebook, a new open-source social network Diaspora announced itself to the world in April 2010 and raised millions of dollars from the online community.  And then it quietly disappeared.  Building web software is a lot harder than it looks.  Latest news was a September 2011 launch, but the site is still in limited alpha testing.  I would like to see Diaspora take off, and perhaps it will, especially with the young adult demographic.

Google’s Socially Awkward Attempts

In the meantime, Google is hoping it’s fourth foray into social networking is a charm. 

Strike 1 was Google’s launch of Orkut in 2004 after its failed attempt to buy Friendster.  Orkut is seeing traction only in India and Brazil and its future is in question

Strike 2 was Google Wave, “an online tool for real-time communication and collaboration” according to Google.  Wave was a neat technology with a poor implementation.  Sadly, technology history is littered with great ideas on paper.

Strike 3 was Google Buzz, a platform to share videos, pictures, links and status updates, similar to Facebook.  And just like Facebook, Google Buzz made the mistake of erring on the side of openness.  In one of the most egregious cases of privacy busting ever, Google Buzz automatically shared your personal information with your most frequent Gmail contacts.  Including perhaps your hated exes and nosy coworkers.

Google+ Respects Your Walls

Three strikes and you’re out in baseball, but not in business.  Google is hoping to learn from its past mistakes and the mistakes of #1 Facebook by launching Google+, a social service built around the concept of different circles of people with whom you share different information. 

For example, most people would prefer to keep their separate worlds separate: family, friends, lovers and coworkers.  But by default with Facebook and most social networks, you share everything with all your friends and acquaintances.  Your life is an open book, or status page, as it were.

In the real world, however, we like to compartmentalize and erect walls between the people and activities in our lives.  If Google+ can recognize and respect these boundaries, it will have a leg up on Facebook.

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Article published on October 26, 2011

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