The State of Social: Facebook and the Alternatives

I never did like Facebook. In fact, I only joined the benighted data-grabber two years after I started tweeting. Perhaps this reluctance was an indication of my desire to communicate, rather than staying up to date with my friends’ latest FarmVille scores. Maybe I didn’t want to be the plaything of an advertising network. Or, I suppose that Zuckerberg might have been right, and I really was so darned anti-social that I detested my friends and never wanted to see their annoying faces again [note: sarcasm].

All the same, I joined. And now, I’ve had enough.

Except, there’s a problem with the Facebook-leaving sentiment, however appealing, fashionable and written about it might be. When you delete your account (…he says, as if such a thing were possible…), you’ll still want to keep in touch with your close friends when you can’t see them, and with your relatives on the other side of the world, who still want to see your latest pictures. You’re going to have to find an alternative.

Okay, so let’s have a think. Ah, yes, of course: Google+.

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Google+

Many of the folks who are deeply embedded in the tech community readily advocate Google’s network as the way forward, and in practical usage terms, I have to agree. It is a platform with a pretty design that is free from display advertising. Decent privacy controls are included, and the image handling is very, very good. It even has a hash-tagging system that people actually use.

Google+: pretty, ad-free, but still a bit evil.

Google+: pretty, ad-free, but still a bit evil.

There are, however, two key flaws in terms of using Google’s system as a Facebook alternative. The first relates to the use of your data. Google is only holding back on display advertising — unless you positively opt out — because it is generating income by using your face and persona in connection with its advertisers’ products and services. And aside from the specifics, Google will use your social interaction, in much the same way it uses data from its other web-apps, to build an advert-ready profile of who you are.

The second issue is its likeness to Facebook. Given that no social network can initially (if ever) compete with Facebook’s user spread, a service like Google+ needs early adopters to convince their friends to join. I’m one such early adopter. How am I going to convince my friends to move to a slightly prettier, fractionally less overtly evil, Facebook clone? I can’t think.

Path

Amongst the best of the rest is Path. It’s one of the most stunningly beautiful apps you could ever hope to meet, and is a joy to use.

Path: even prettier, but it has its problems, too.

Path: even prettier, but it has its problems, too.

It does have big issues, though. Path has previously been caught spamming users’ contacts, and uploading entire address books, without permission. Additionally, the mobile-only approach that Path has taken — it was only an iOS app for the first year — is unnecessary, and causes a major problem. Path is, of course, automatically excluding everyone who is not a smartphone owner. But it is also actually excluding everyone who chose to purchase one of Nokia’s fine handsets, as no Windows Phone app is available (although it is finally on its way). For any budding social network — particularly one that has received a total of $41.2m in funding — I can only describe that as a massive fail.

The faults I point out seem to be at odds with the positive billing Google and Path receive from the tech community. That has as much to do with the pretentiousness of the Silicon Valley bubble as it does with my dissatisfaction with the current set of social options, though.

Indirect Competition

As I hold out little hope of Ninoff and Diaspora ever coming good, I’m not sure whether Facebook truly has a usable direct replacement. However well meaning or open source a Facebook clone is, it is not, for the reasons mentioned above, going to be the destination for those wishing to exit Zuck’s machine.

This is why I’m impressed by Everyme. It’s mobile, but desktop-friendly, too. It has much of the media capability provided by Facebook and Google, but with a greater emphasis on simplicity. It is also free from brands, business and other financial interests, whilst also being equipped with the option to organize friends into circles. In fact, I see very little to be critical about.

Everyme: mobile and web, simplicity and no data exploitation.

Everyme: mobile and web, simplicity and no data exploitation.

But even Everyme, with all it has going for it, is unlikely to make a meaningful impression on Facebook’s user base of 1.1 billion and counting, because of the latter service’s unparalleled ubiquitousness.

More Fundamental

Hence, my thinking has come, in recent weeks, to an unexpected conclusion.

Over the years, many services have matched Facebook’s function. But, to my knowledge, there is only one network which has more users: email. Yes, the original, no-nonsense, friend-to-friend, personal inbox.

My theory is that a network which is based entirely on email notifications and hidden URLs would free users from the compulsion to update incessantly, and discourage the over-inflation of friends lists. Equally, it could allow for better control over content, and it would be accessible to anyone who is able to operate a computer.

How would such a system be built and monetized? I couldn’t tell you. All I can say is that I sure do loathe Facebook, and I sure would love to use my hypothetical system.

How do you think Facebook’s dominance can be broken? Let me know your view in the comments below.


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