Does The Ownership Of Social Networks Really Matter?

In my most recent post entitled “Facebook Buys FriendFeed; Identica is Open Source; Does It Matter?” I asked “But how relevant is this dogma?” in response to the apparent suggestion on a mailing list for an international standards body that since “above all is Open source” the standards body (DCMI) should make use of the micro-blogging service in preference to the closed source Twitter solution.

I sought to draw parallels with the recent announcement that Facebook had bought FriendFeed, suggesting that, although some may feel that this announcement will force them to leave FriendFeed and use an alternative micro-blogging environment, for me and, I suspect, for many the ownership of the service and the underlying software isn’t a clinching argument. We know that this is the case generally (although many won’t like it to admit it, the reality is most users use Microsoft Office products rather than Open Office and Internet Explorer rather than FireFox). And for social networking environments there is a added complication – social networks don’t work unless there is a community – you might be happy to use Open Office on your own, but an open source community with few members is likely to be an unproductive environment for many.

So rather than the ‘we must use an open source micro-blogging environment – full stop‘ argument, let’s explore the reasons ownership issues could matter and the associated challenges if it is felt there may be a need to consider migrating to a new environment.

A Risk Assessment Approach

In response to my post Cameron Neylon pointed out that “if Friendfeed goes away from what our community wants from it we have no way of maintaining our community because it isn’t open source“. He went on to add “If twitter were swallowed by google tomorow and everyone forced to use Google Talk instead (I don’t say its likely, just possible) then you’re in trouble“.

That’s true, and as I have recently had a paper on “Library 2.0: Balancing the Risks and Benefits to Maximise the Dividends” published recently in the Program journal I would endorse Cameron’s approach of identifying risks. What then are the risks? I think, in the case of the Facebook purchase of FriendFeed, these might include:

  • Facebook shuts down FriendFeed. It regarded it as competition for its core business and bought the company in order to remove the threat.
  • Facebook continues FriendFeed, but changes its terms and conditions which are felt to be unacceptable to significant parts of the FriendFeed community.
  • Facebook makes changes to the FriendFeed user interface which users don’t like (e.g. provision of ads in the free version of the client).

These are legitimate questions to raise. But that does not necessarily mean existing users should abandon FriendFeed. There is a need to ask how realistic such risks may be and also to consider the costs and the effort of moving to an alternative. I remember being told that organisations shouldn’t use Google as a search engine as we can’t guarantee that Google wouldn’t change their terms and conditions. True – but most people are prepared to accept that risks.

The likelihood that such changes will happen is likely to be very subjective, so I’ll not engage in that assessment here. I would suggest, however, that if FriendFreed users are seriously considering a migration to an alternative environment (as opposed to just having a moan) then they will need to think about what the migration strategies would be. There is also a need to be honest about the costs and difficulties of such a migration, including the difficulties of migrating a community, the associated costs of doing this and the dangers of associated losses (of data, communities and credibility).

And although FriendFeed users may be asking such questions in light of the purchase of the company by Facebook, the general issues I’ve raised are likely to be true in other context, whether a move from Flickr if Microsoft were to purchase Yahoo or a move from Twitter if its ownership were to change.

The Risks Of Change

As well as the risks associated with use of current well-established services such as FriendFeed or Twitter, there is also a need to consider the risks of alternatives, especially when the alternatives are immature or unproven. And simply arguing that, for example, “above all is Open source” is an inappropriate response.  Look, for example, at the evidence provided by failed open source initiatives in the area of social networking environments. Who remembers “Marc Canter’s much anticipated PeopleAggregator“, which provided, as described in TechCrunch in 2006, “free downloads of the software for organizations who prefer to host it themselves” which meant that “it will be easy to come and go from new social networks, instead of being locked in to one just because you’ve put the time and energy into using your account there. Instead of being at the mercy of one centralized database and service, if Canter’s vision succeeds then countless social networks will proliferate with unique styles and function but with interoperability.

The People Aggregator software may not have been open source but, as it could be downloaded and installed locally, it avoided the single point of failure problem which has recently troubled Twitter. But let’s now consider Eduspaces, an open source social networking environment designed for the educational community which announced the closure of the service in 16 December 2007, giving the user community just a few weeks before the service was scheduled for closure.

And looking at the Eduspaces Web site today I see it describes itself as “the world’s first and largest social networking site dedicated to education and educational technology“. But looking at the FAQ to see who owns the company, where it is based, what jurisdiction covers the content and terms and conditions I find a series of questions but no answers, other than the stark message “[available soon]”. And the terms and conditions state that:

  • We reserve the right to modify or terminate the EduSpaces service for any reason, without notice at any time.
  • We reserve the right to alter these Terms of Use at any time. If the alterations constitute a material change to the Terms of Use, we will notify you via an appropriate method. What is a ‘material change’ is at our discretion
  • We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone for any reason at any time.

So remember, there may be flaws and concerns over the social networking services we are using today. But an uncritical adoption of alternatives just because they are open source could lead to a worse scenario than the potential risks identified above.