Do we need a public alternative to Facebook?

As we become more interconnected and use the Web for problem solving, finding love and sharing our sorrow, we should seriously consider public infrastructure as the backbone for social networking. Just as we have funded roads and airports, we need to provide safe and open platforms for online community forming. As private systems proliferate, it’s time for our publicly-funded institutions to jump on the Web 2.0 cluetrain and offer an alternative.

Following the recent mass murder at Virginia Tech, over 200 Facebook communities were created as “a gathering place for those affected by this event, both for people who lived through it and those moved to express their condolances”. At Library 2.0, [dead link] Laura Cohen also noted that there was no equivalent social networking system (SNS) provided by Virginia Tech, so people, mostly students, had to use a commercial platform.

When I advise clients on Web 2.0 applications I discuss the pros and cons of free systems. These are excellent “use as is” systems, as long as you don’t intend to move your data or think you will need it in the event of new rules or a system shut-down. Some platforms, like social bookmarks, let you export your data in an open format which can be used by other systems. However, you cannot do this with most SNS, nor can you export your posts from the ubiquitous Blogger. That is a critical distinction between “free” and “open source”. With the latter, you can access the source code, export your data and move to another host. The more data you create, the more important it will be to control it.

Our public institutions may be missing the boat on SNS. Currently there are over 15 million Facebook users and the growth curve is steep. Universities could easily adopt open source SNS, like Elgg,[dead link] to provide a similar free service. The advantage would be ownership by a publicly-funded institution or perhaps even the alumni association. Laura Cohen [dead link]sees the loss of this information as a cultural issue:

I’m concerned about this because many academic libraries are charged with preserving the cultural memory of their institutions. In the age of Web 2.0, a great deal of this culture is being played out in networked communities unaffiliated with these institutions. If campus constituencies are gathering in external spaces, how will their activities be preserved? The third party gathering places – Facebook and many others – may or may not survive over the years. In fact, they surely won’t outlive most of the institutions with which their members are affiliated. When these services fold, their content will fold with them. Issues of privacy aside – and these are major issues – a great opportunity for preservation will be lost.

I noticed that our local university is highlighting student bloggers [dead link]. Unfortunately, all of these blogs are hosted on Google’s Blogger. Why not provide a Mount Allison University blog for life to all students? Hosting it on an open source platform would also give students the ability to export their data if they so wish. Furthermore, a free blog and/or SNS would be an excellent way to stay in touch with alumni. An easy first step for educational institutions would be to test out Elgg’s Eduspaces [dead link]. It’s free AND open source.

Open data protocols and open source systems have become more important for me as I realize that I have almost one thousand posts on this website and many more comments. This is an important professional archive for me now, but this was not an issue initially. You don’t realize the importance of the open source model until after you’ve passed the point of no return.

Update: You may want to watch this video overview [dead link]of the money and politics behind Facebook, though I haven’t researched it to verify that it’s accurate.

4 Responses to “Do we need a public alternative to Facebook?”

  1. Laura Cohen

    Just as we have funded roads and airports, we need to provide safe and open platforms for online community forming. As private systems proliferate, it’s time for our publicly-funded institutions to jump on the Web 2.0 cluetrain and offer an alternative.

    Well said. I’m glad you see some wisdom in offering publicly-funded platforms for the development of online communities. So far, over at my blog, the commenters don’t agree. I think they bring up some good points, but I also contend that this is an idea worth pursuing. It concerns me that institutions of higher education are ceding such important ground to commercial sites that inevitably will come and go.

  2. Stephen Downes

    I like the idea of publicly funded platforms for social networks, however, the implementation needs to be thought out.

    The idea of offering university-managed blogs or sites to students has been considered and tried (eg., at UBC) but the students reject them – universities cannot resist managing the content of such spaces, and students (and even student groups) want an autonomy the institution is not willing to grant them.

    The library is a better idea, but still stands liable to be the target of political interference. There needs to be some mechanism that renders publicly funded online spaces immune to interference, while also being free of the other limitations commercial services impose on users.

  3. Harold

    Yes, the devil is in the details, but I’m sure that we can figure out an arm’s length relationship that works for most people. I hear that there are lots of smart people in The Academy.


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