It looks like the backlash against monolithic, overreaching social networks is growing faster than I thought. I’d brought up this sentiment earlier as I was watching the increasing unease with which each Facebook privacy update was received. Certainly the mammoth social network isn’t exactly plummeting in popularity, but such initial stirrings tend to underlie a deeper discontent that is unlikely to abate. There are, at the very least, increasing numbers of people willing to jump ship in order to preserve some control over their online activities.
Whether or not such reactions are warranted, I personally attribute them to things such as Facebook’s open acquiescence (some would say collusion), to both government and private surveillance. People are increasingly aware of the power of near-instant communication networks, and are simultaneously looking for alternatives to what are increasingly non-opt-out-able additions.
It’s almost as if people have gotten a taste of what social networks can do only to have the rug pulled out from under them and told that they must subjugate themselves to the wishes of whatever system they happen to be a member of if they want to keep playing. Facebook happens to get a lot more attention on this front simply because of its sheer size, but now that the cat has been let out of the bag, it’s a bit too late to reverse course. The promise of a free and open Facebook, underpinned by an implicit promise of freedom and control, is being replaced by the looming and very real threat of a massive monitoring system with little return for most users other than as a slightly more advanced discussion forum.
It’s little wonder then that as Instagram was recently subsumed by Facebook, the move caused a significant backlash. It’s not so much about opening up one’s life to public scrutiny, it’s the implicit level of (or lack of) control, as presented by the social network, that is of such concern to people. Critics have trouble understanding why people who otherwise share their lives publicly would suddenly have a problem with becoming part of a larger network that is just as public. Typically the “spotty security record” of the social network is cited as the reason, though few pundits are willing to state the obviousness of what people are really thinking: if this is what Facebook is willing to do today, what will it willingly do tomorrow?
Of course people are emotionally driven and perhaps Facebook might roll back everything tomorrow, but the damage to its reputation is already done so people will be looking at it with a critical sideways gaze from now on. No, I don’t expect a mass exodus because people still want and need a centralized place to communicate. Joining yet another social network, especially in light of the acquisition of many current ones, makes people wary of giving up yet more information to yet another network. In this case, Facebook is simply the lesser of two evils, and they’d likely get all this information eventually anyways.
If I may make a blunt prediction here, what’s really required, and what will ultimately make the biggest dent to the current social networking trend, is the rise of the personal social network. This will still carry many of the hallmarks of current social networks but with one glaring difference: people’s social networks will belong entirely to them. To put it another way, centralized services will be shunned in exchange for fully user owned and operated services. To use a Facebook analogy, your discussion wall would be hosted entirely by you. If you want to take it down you can wipe it from existence entirely. You can share whatever information you want, monetize it any way you want, and not be beholden to any single entity while it’s running. The worst complaints arising from this approach will be connectivity and stability, both of which can be accounted for with proper development techniques.
At present, this isn’t easy to do. You could, of course, sign up for some existing web service where you can build your own social network (think Ning, for example), but that’s the “yet another social network” problem. You could host your own web site but that requires some fairly indepth technical knowledge, not to mention an investment, albeit a minor one, and then the “yet another social network” problem still exists on top of that. In other words, there isn’t currently an easy solution. For something to become a viable alternative, it would have to require as little informational investment as possible, be incredibly easy to install and use, and provide as much control as possible without requiring it for the exchange of personal freedoms. That sort of technology doesn’t exist, yet, but it will be the thing to bet on to lead the next revolution in the socially connected net. And, frankly, I don’t think it’s that far off.