Love it or hate it, Facebook is truly a remarkable website. People will say that they dislike it, even loathe it, but will keep coming back to it again and again. It has weathered controversies over data mining, privacy leaks and even psychological experimentation on its users. None of this stops it from growing and thriving. Why?
Since Facebook has over a billion users and social networks can’t communicate with each other, it’s almost impossible for a new network to rise up and become popular. Most recently, the tech industry witnessed this with Google+. Despite Google’s enhanced privacy controls and other features which should’ve given it an edge, it failed to gain a foothold because new users could not communicate with their friends on Facebook. This lack of intercommunication is what has allowed Facebook to gain a virtual monopoly in the social media market.
Consider email. Although I have a Gmail account, I can send and receive messages from Hotmail and Yahoo users and vice versa. This freedom allows me to choose which email service I want based upon the features of that service and not which service my friends are using. In fact, if I wanted to, I could even set up my own email service and still communicate with users on Gmail, Hotmail or any other service.
This freedom allows healthy competition and innovation in the industry. Hotmail used to be the number one email provider in the 2000s. If Hotmail users could only communicate with other Hotmail users, the upstart Gmail never would’ve been able to get off the ground, much less become popular. It wouldn’t have mattered how many features they offered to their users, without the ability to communicate with all of the people using Hotmail, the service would’ve been useless.
This freedom is due to email being an open technology which was developed by the US government and universities. Social networks, a far more recent development, were created independently by various companies attempting to unseat each other by making mutually incompatible systems. This lack of an open technology, which anybody can use, has slowed competition and innovation among social networks to a crawl. There are a few attempts at open distributed social networks (DSNs), which work similar to how email does. However, these services, with names like Diaspora, Friendica and pump.io, have largely been the domain of hardcore hobbyists and haven’t caught on yet. In the interest of full disclosure, I volunteer for the Diaspora Project.
Recently, my news feeds have been blowing up over a new social network called Ello. People are excited over its rebellious, uncompromising attitude and promise of a network that is free from advertising and data mining. I like it. It has a neat community of artists and designers. It has text formatting (unlike Facebook), and it handles image links better than Facebook does. Unfortunately, I’m afraid that it will simply wind up vanishing off the radar like Google+ did, and the majority of users will go back to Facebook. This is because Ello and Facebook can’t communicate with each other.