Dave Winer has been developing a theme of open systems on his blog over several months. Today he looks at the recent French decision to prohibit media promotion of web services run by companies:
In the United States, the media are making a huge mistake re Twitter and Facebook by treating them as if they were open systems like the web or email. In fact, and they know this, they are corporations with eponymous services.
In France, in the spirit of being open to competition, the government has prohibited the media from using the names of the services unless the story is specifically about the company. I think this is very smart, compared to what we’re doing and not doing here.
In the United States, not only do the media treat Twitter and Facebook as if they were public utilities, like the open web, it’s actually even worse. The Library of Congress, which is part of the government, is subsidizing Twitter, by doing a complete archive of Twitter, before making a serious attempt at archiving the web. This helps cement Twitter as the medium of record, which is ridiculous. The market is just getting started. How can you justifiy the government taking sides over other equivalent (or better) ways to communicate, that are not owned by a company (like the web, for example). If this isn’t against the law, to use taxpayer funds to help a company achieve dominance over competitors, it should be against the law.
I regularly use Twitter and Facebook and sometimes recommend them to organisations for certain projects as part of the work we do at NativeHQ. But that doesn’t mean I’m entirely trustful of these and other services for the long term. These are free-of-charge-to-user services provided by companies and paid for by advertisers. Furthermore they offer very few ways of exporting your data or contacts and moving to a rival service, should you want to.
That’s a very different deal from, say, buying a domain name, some hosting and setting up a blog or wiki which you control, which is independent of any company (even, say, WordPress or Twiki if you’re running the code independently) and which can be backed up. Or, setting up a subdomain and running something like status.net, the open source Twitter clone, within your organisation or community. In practice the core code for those systems is free of charge but you will spend money getting them set up and maintained. My point is the freedom and control you get with them.
So should we use the free-of-charge hosted services like Twitter and Facebook, the services which don’t bring the freedom? For cost-free web services, it’s difficult to make a categorical decision which applies to all cases. Even the paid web services (like Flickr, which has a mixture of free-of-charge and paid premium users) suffer downtime, get acquired, modified – and sometimes closed. Long-term reliability could be one of the things you’d be looking for and these weaknesses reduce the score, at least in that category.
I have a feeling that a lot of the innovation we will see in the next few years will be focused on replicating the feel and capability of some of these social media services in a way which is distributed across the web – small pieces loosely joined – just like websites are. The closed systems provide the initial idea, the impetus will come from business opportunities and individual will and the result will be open systems of many kinds which restore power and control to the users. That might sound less convenient than the comparatively slick centralised systems we have now. But I believe developers will find a way to make it work in a friendly way.
But that’s where the prediction ends. As befits the NativeHQ blog, this is a practical blog post about what you can do now.
So for now if you want to be where the people are in 2011 centralised systems like Twitter and Facebook can feasibly – but not always – have an important role to play.
When and if? As with many questions on which our work here hinges, it depends. I can say with certainty that the benefits to you will come at the possible expense of some of the weaknesses and the potential problems. And I owe it to the people we work with to be clear on that.
How you use these tools is important too. Here’s just one example: are you putting your organisation’s news and information on Facebook only, perhaps on a Facebook page or worse still, your own personal profile? You could be missing a whole bunch of people – particularly if they’re not habitual users of Facebook, are using Google search, are on your website, are looking at your email newsletter or any number of other places. You also miss some of their comments and restrict the visibility of the conversation. In that case I would look at putting your content on the web and then sharing a link on Facebook instead. For programmers it’s the difference between passing along a reference and passing along the data, the values. It will probably make your content more accessible – appearing in a Facebook feed as well as being on the open web, with all the benefits that brings.