A Modest Proposal for Social Networks or, How This Could be the Next Facebook

I’m still trying to catch up with my big blog post (maybe a white paper?) on the research we did on Networked Publics and the Infrastructural City, so bear with me. In the meantime, how about some pie-in-the-sky ideas about Web 3.0 (so sorry)?  

A couple of weeks ago, Traction Software’s Jordan Frank wrote an intelligently-written post titled "Wither Web 2.0 Social Networking? My 2 Cents." Jordan begins with a series of gloomy links on the failure of social networking technology to monetize. It’s pretty obvious to those of you on Twitter or on Facebook…we use these sites all the time. Some 150 million people subscribe to Facebook and half of them use it every day. It costs a lot of money to run Facebook’s servers (the photo below is of some of the over 10,000 servers Facebook uses) and back in 2007, Fishtrain calculated that the server cost alone was around $1.05 a user and of course there are employees, office space, and so on.

In other words, that’s crazy money and for social networks to stay afloat, they are going to have to make some real cash fast. Facebook could well be racing the New York Times for which one will shut its doors first.

facebook's server room

Advertising is the hitch here. Social networks, search engines, and of course newspapers and magazines have long relied on advertising to fund their businesses, but as advertisers are able to see results more directly than ever before, they find that perhaps ads—especially the sort of relatively unobtrusive ads that appear on social networks…but that users still hate—aren’t really generating the kind of results they want.

Remember "it’s all about eyeballs?" I remember doe-eyed business school graduates telling me that a decade ago and look how far that went…

User fees are certainly possible but extremely unlikely, in my opinion, to succeed.

Instead, here’s a thought experiment. With millions of blogs and content-management-driven Web sites out there (like this one, but also online user communities), what if social networks left the corporate-owned ghetto? What if a set of tools were developed—OpenId being only the first one—to allow all the goodies of social networking sites—meeting friends, posting profiles, tracking online actions, sending dumb gifts, unfriending people, posting kid photos, poking—to spread across the Web? How different would this be than losing America Online, Compuserve, and the various online services of the 1980s and early 1990s? What if all this social networking stuff just went into the cloud—not a cloud owned by Amazon or Google—but a cloud owned by everyone? A few new tools and Drupal 9.0 could certainly do this, I think. 

Surely some important technological breakthroughs would have to be made to make this a reality, but really, why not? 

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george orwell in the sentient city

Yesterday’s New York Times reports on something I’ve been saying all along: that the sentient city is also a surveillance city and the digital trail we leave as we move through it allows corporations and governments to spy on us like never before. Yes, there’s a chance it’s all for our benefit. But for how long? See You’re Leaving a Digital Trail. What About Privacy?

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