The nature of the bargain: your organisation, Facebook and Twitter

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.

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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.

You can read the rest on scripting.com.

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.

NativeHQ’s take on Facebook, in the Western Mail today

Here in Cardiff we keep a close eye on the Western Mail, so thanks to David Williamson for including my views on Facebook in his wide-ranging piece published today:

Carl Morris, a digital media consultant at Cardiff-based NativeHQ, thinks Zuckerberg wants Facebook to be the internet equivalent of a Swiss Army Knife – a site that provides every tool you could want.

While he respects the achievements of its founders, he compared Facebook to a “walled garden” with its corporate-controlled environment.

He said people should remember that the site is a business which makes its money by appealing to advertisers.

“People think that when they join Facebook they become Facebook’s customer but you’re not the customer – you’re what’s being sold,” he said.

While I stand by David’s faithful quotation of my words, such an articles can only ever be an introduction to the topic at hand, particularly where the practical use of technology is concerned. So although generally critical of Facebook’s failings in the article, I do make fairly regular use of it – both in my work as a digital media consultant and personal life.

As with any tool, where, how or even if we use Facebook on a project depends on the objectives. In technology there is no perfect tool for every application, only pros and cons to any choice.

Incidentally, I would have to disagree partly with one of the article’s quotations from Prof Chris Price of Aberystwyth University:

“I don’t worry about Facebook at all,” he said, adding that he is not surprised people are turning to the social network to send messages to their friends instead of using a single e-mail account. But he said he does not expect e-mail to die, instead becoming the medium for professional communications.

The professor said: “In some ways it’s quite a sensible split.”

He also expects people to have multiple identities online to reflect the different nature of their relationships in real life.

“People talk about having one Facebook account for their friends and another which is the one their parents can look at,” he said.

Yes, people do have multiple identities online and have excellent reasons for doing so. (Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has repeatedly failed to emphasise this fact, arguably because it drives Facebook’s growth and chimes with his philosophy.)

But don’t create multiple personal accounts! There’s no need, it’s potentially confusing and certainly creates more work for you. There are multiple ways of controlling visibility of your posts, photos and other content on the basis of individual people and friend lists, via what Facebook calls the privacy settings.

Another point I made to David at the Western Mail, which unfortunately didn’t make it to the final article, is that web services such as Twitter and WordPress which default to everything public can be said to possess – paradoxically maybe – better privacy policies than that of Facebook. They have fewer privacy settings, it’s very clear that your posts will be findable on the web, therefore you as a user have a clearer idea of who can read your posts. And if you’re not comfortable with something being on the web at large (rather than an ill-defined semi-public like your Facebook friends), you won’t post it in the first place.

Of course, in practice, privacy is a wider issue than software settings.

Google Street View launches in Cardiff, Swansea, London, Oxford, Birmingham and other cities

In the past few months, if you’ve seen a mysterious looking van gliding past your home, this could be the explanation.

The intriguing Google Street View has launched in 25 cities today, including Cardiff where I live and work.

I’d be interested to hear if you find anything noteworthy – just go to Google Maps and drag the yellow man on to the spot you want to view. It takes postcode, street names and location names.

It’s a funny aspect of people that they’re able to look anywhere – but usually people go straight to their own house and locality.

Here’s Juno Lounge (where we hold monthly Trydan cafe meet-ups to discuss the social web).

I was trying to date the pictures by looking for cues from Cardiff’s cultural scene. Gwdihw cafe bar appeared in this bit of Cardiff in late 2008 and Cafe Bar Europa took on new ownership and name in summer 2008. But I’m pretty sure the Visitor Centre vanished from Cardiff Bay a long time ago. Finally I happened on this poster site on Womanby Street, where most of the posters refer to events in June 2008.

Telegraph have an intro and photo gallery of big (mostly English) landmarks.

Roger Browning at The Guardian was captured on camera striding into his London home. Here’s a Times piece about the privacy issues from 2007, when the service launched in the USA.

Google’s press department have also slung out a brief list of ideas for uses of Street View for business. As with anything, it’s worth having a good play before even considering business applications. Besides, the big winner will be Google itself, with whole new data sets to draw eyeballs and clicks to their ads.