It’s the end of the web as we know it

When you own a domain you’re a first class citizen of the web. A householder and landowner. What you can do on your own website is only very broadly constrained by law and convention. You can post the content you like. You can run the software you want, including software you’ve written or customised yourself. And you can design it to look the way you want. If you’re paying for a web hosting service and you don’t like it (or they don’t like you) you can pack up your site and move it to another host. Your URLs will stay the same and so your visitors won’t notice. You get a great deal of freedom in return for the cost of running your own site. Your site could still be there in a decade’s time, possibly even in a century.

If you use a paid-for web service at someone else’s domain you’re a tenant. A second class citizen. You don’t have much control. You’ll probably have to live with your landlord’s furniture and decoration and a restrictive set of rules. Your content will only exist at these URLs for as long as you keep paying the same people that monthly fee and for as long as your provider stays in business. Experience tells me that this isn’t very long. As a paying customer you’ll have a few rights under your contract but they probably won’t amount to very much. When you leave you’ll probably be able to get your data back in a useful format but when you put it back on the web somewhere else you’ll lose all your inbound links, search engine rankings and many of your visitors. This kind of service seems like a good deal until the day you need to move.

When you use a free web service you’re the underclass. At best you’re a guest. At worst you’re a beggar, couchsurfing the web and scavenging for crumbs. It’s a cliche but it’s worth repeating: if you’re not paying for it you’re the product not the customer. Your individual account is probably worth very little to the service provider, so they’ll have no qualms whatsoever with tinkering with the service or even making radical changes in their interests rather than yours. If you don’t like it you’re welcome to leave. You may well not be able to take your content and data with you and even if you can, all your URLs are broken.

The conclusion here should be obvious: if you really care about your site you need to run it on your own domain. You need to own your URLs. You’ll have total control and no-one can take it away from you. You don’t need anyone else. If you put the effort in up front it’ll pay off in the long run.

But it’s no longer that simple.

Anyone who’s ever run a website knows that building the site is one thing, getting people to use it is quite another. The smaller your real-world presence the harder it is. If you’re a national newspaper or a Hollywood star you probably won’t have much trouble getting people to visit your website. If you’re a self-employed plumber or an unknown blogger writing in your spare time it’s considerably harder.

Traffic used to come from three places: the real world (print advertising, business cards, word of mouth, etc.), search engines and inbound links. Whichever field you were in and at whichever level, you were competing against other similar sites on a fairly level playing field.

Social networks have changed all that. Facebook and Twitter now wield enormous power over the web by giving their members ways to find and share information using tools that work in a social context. There’s no obvious way to replicate this power out on the open web of independent websites tied together loosely by links and search engine results.

Not so long ago you had to be on MySpace if you were an up-and-coming band. Now it’s probably Facebook. Either way, your social network presence is more important than your own website.

If you’re an independent photographer looking to get established you probably need to get your pictures on photo sharing sites like Flickr where they can be easily found by millions.

Many of the most valuable conversations around technology and many other fields happen on Twitter. If you’re not there you don’t really exist, especially if you’re just getting started in your field.

You can turn your back on the social networks that matter in your field and be free and independent running your own site on your own domain. But increasingly that freedom is just the freedom to be ignored, the freedom to starve. We need to use social networks to get heard and this forces us into digital serfdom. We give more power to Big Web companies with every tweet and page we post to their networks while hoping to get a bit of traffic and attention back for ourselves. The open web of free and independent websites has never looked so weak.

Perhaps none of this would matter very much if the biggest player of them all — Facebook — wasn’t such a grotesque abuser of its position. Even before announcing Open Graph this week it was pretty clear that Facebook wanted to own everything everyone does online. Facebook currently has 750 million members. If it were a country it’d be the third most populous country in the world, bigger than everyone except China and India. The United States has a mere 312 million people — not even half the size of Facebook.

Facebook’s Open Graph technology allows third-party websites to tell Facebook what people are doing. It extends Facebook’s Like button to include any action that the site owners think might be interesting to Facebook. Play a song and your music streaming site tells Facebook what you’ve played. Read a newspaper article and Facebook knows what you’ve read. LOL at a lolcat and your LOL gets logged for all time on your indelible activity record. Facebook calls this “frictionless sharing”, which is their euphemism for silent total surveillance. Once you’ve signed up for this (and it is optional, at least for now) you don’t need to do anything else to “share” your activity with Facebook. It’s completely automatic.

Site owners and developers are lapping it up. Hosting company Heroku posted this incredible tweet the day after Open Graph was announced:

Huge Open Graph momentum with social devs, we’ve seen more than 33,800 new Facebook apps in last 24 hours #f8

Yes, that’s nearly 34,000 new Facebook apps created in one day by customers of just one hosting company. Astonishing numbers.

At least Facebook is up front about Social Graph. Facebook’s abuse of its Like button to invade people’s privacy is much less publicised. We all think we know how it works. We’re on a website reading an interesting page and we click the Like button. A link to the page gets posted to our wall for our friends to see and Facebook keeps this data and data about who clicks on it to help it to sell advertising. So much so predictable.

What most people don’t know is that the Like button tracks your browsing history. Every time you visit a web page that displays the Like button Facebook logs that data in your account. It doesn’t put anything on your wall but it knows where you’ve been. This even happens if you log out of Facebook. Like buttons are pretty much ubiquitous on mainstream websites so every time you visit one you’re doing some frictionless sharing. Did you opt in to this? Only by registering your Facebook account in the first place. Can you turn it off? Only by deleting your account.

This is where I draw the line. I’m well aware that everything we do online and many of the things we do in the real world creates a data shadow — a digital record of our actions. If you carry a mobile phone your location is continually recorded by your phone company. If you’re suspected of a crime or go missing then this data will be handed to the police. Most of us know this and choose to use mobile phones anyway. We know that when we buy things that transaction is recored by our bank and the shop unless we’re using cash. We know that our computers and our broadband providers record what we do online. But all these things are predictable and at least arguably necessary to provide the services we use. We might not like these intrusions into our privacy but we like the law enforcement, fraud protection and service quality that they buy us. It’s a compromise that most of us are willing to make.

What Facebook is doing is very different. When it records our activity away from the Facebook site it’s a third party to the deal. It doesn’t need this data to run its own services. Moreover, Facebook’s aggregation and centralisation of data across all our disparate fields of activity is a very different thing from our phone company having our phone data and our bank having our finances. Worst of all, the way Facebook collects and uses our data is both unpredictable and opaque. Its technology and policies move so quickly you’d need to be a technical and legal specialist and spend an inordinate amount of time researching Facebook’s activities on an ongoing basis to have any hope of understanding what they’re doing with your data.

As individuals we can opt out. It’s still possible to live a full life in the developed world and not use social networks. Some people may find it harder than others — missing out on event invitations that are only sent on Facebook, for example. Not being able to see your friends’ photos because they’re only posted to Facebook. Not being able to join conversations on Twitter. But for now there are sufficient alternatives for most of us. As with smoking, it’s easier to not start using the social web than to stop. Once you’ve signed up the cost of leaving increases with every “friend” you make, every photo you post, every tweet you send. That’s why I’m holding out against Google+ for now.

For organisations and business it’s very different. We’re already past the point where social networks can be ignored. If you don’t have a social networking presence your businesses is at a significant disadvantage compared with those that do. It’s where the attention, the traffic and the conversations are. Even public and government services are finding their social networking activities increasingly important. How long before they’re essential?

The promise of the open web looks increasingly uncertain. The technology will continue to exist and improve. It looks like you’ll be able to run your own web server on your own domain for the foreseeable future. But all the things that matter will be controlled and owned by a very small number of Big Web companies. Your identity will be your accounts at Facebook, Google and Twitter, not the domain name you own. You don’t pay Big Web a single penny so it can take away your identity and all your data at any time. The things you can say and do that are likely to be seen and used by any significant number of people will be the things that Facebook, Google and Twitter are happy for you to say and do. You can do what you like on your own website but you’ll probably be shouting into the void.

If I find any answers I’ll post them but right now things are looking bleak. It’s the end of the web as we know it and I feel pretty far from fine.

@adrianshort

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184 comments

  1. Great read!
    You write that the only way to leave this is to DELETE your account… well, not really, you can only DEACTIVATE it… so FB is still keeping all data… you know… just in case you want to come back. :)

  2. Thanks for the great write-up. At what point do we say, “You know, this social networking stuff is a public good and needs to be treated as such?”

  3. I agree, as soon as you take the internet and wall parts of it off, build fences, like what Facebook is then it loses its value. Unfortunately people still think like college students or children for that matter. They want to be cool, they want to be liked for posting something on their walls. This phenomenon is very American and immature, but safe and a luxurious time sink. A safe way to spend your days indoors, confined by a box, away from harsh environment, your computer and the boxes within it. Facebook is simply a box with a lot of clout. But the fact that Zuck keeps touting how it connects people and has a moral compass, annoys me. He is still an ignorant college kid living in his dorm room, and that’s exactly what Facebook investors want him to be. Zuck is not that brilliant for building a web page that college kids like and now he’s being taken advantage of too. Facebook does little for society other than keep us confined into tiny spaces with little nutrition. At least Twitter is an even playing field and more open. The open social graph is bogus. Stop fooling yourself Zuck… you have created a monster by compromising principles. Grow some.

  4. I would like to see some insights into google. I feel their are not much different – they can connect online activity, email content, mobile phone, laptop activity – forgotsomething? :) I also feel they come across to sympetathic – is this marketing/manipulation?

  5. Excelent note!, and I agree with you Milan.

    Best regards.

  6. The ultimate irony? I found out about this blog post via Twitter.

  7. I agree with the article and John’s comment about Google – their activities around search, buying up other companies/web functions increases their control of these activities and a user’s web experience.

    Both Google and to a lesser extent FB (due to some major blunders) are perceived to sympathetically and benignly by the media, and worse, governments. Given FB is in the US shouldn’t they be subject to that jurisdiction’s data privacy laws and stringently so? It took Germany and France to take Google to task over Street View – though it seems to have made little difference to their overall approach…

    I think Zuckermann is too naive still. He is trying to deliver a seamless user experience without even acknowledging the difficult questions that generates about what the motives are. Giving him the benefit of the doubt they may not be his personal [nefarious/commercial] motives, but those of his investors which prey on his naivety and encourage him to deliver the “improved user experience/seamless sharing” knowing what power/return that will give them?

  8. Lovely article

  9. It’s so true.
    And I hope identi.ca will replace twitter. (I don’t use facebook!)

    And if you’re a star wars fan, you could call this post “A New Hope” ;-)

  10. Where’s the Like button?

  11. We would rail against a government doing the same sort of tracking, yet a company doing it is ok to the majority of users?

    Excellent blog.

    Thanks

  12. Firefox, with the NoScript plugin.

    I only enable scripting for page elements I WANT to view. The global Facebook ones, and things like Google AdSense etc I leave blocked.

    You ain’t seen me… right?
    <__> <_<

  13. Funny thing is, I was looking for a facebook button to share this article with my friends :-)

  14. As you pointed up about owning a business and not creating a social presence it is already an disadvantage. What can be more true than owning a domain with your own content in the future will be pointless? You will need to grow your presence on top of the “Big Web” to have your say, but at which cost?

  15. Great article, I must admit. I like zuck and I once had a facebook account. Like few people out there, I shut it down.
    I am presently on twitter though and only got to this blog via its link.
    Technology is a moving target and we cannot as individuals make it static for our own comprehension, No sir! I believe change is the only constant in life and the facebooks’ and twitters’ will have their day under the sun.
    Social media is evolving but as people with free will, we collectively decide the direction it navigates. Now, this is where your article comes to play. You have raised a point and people will notice soon enough. We owe it to posterity not to create monsters.

  16. I couldn’t agree more. I’m “this close” to abandoning “facebook” completely.
    A few months back I decided that I was sick of having to live by the facebook constraints of what and how i could share when sharing my musings with my friends, so I announced to them – via facebook, of course – that I was “going back home” to my own domain that I’ve owned for well over a decade.
    I don’t get the visibility, but I post what I want, how I want, formatted however I want.
    I hold out no hope for the future – that’s not pessimism, that’s realism.
    Good luck, freedom lovers.
    wxd.

  17. Very interesting, thought-provoking and insightful article. Just look at this flood of comments – they are great too! Thank you.

  18. Fantastic article.

  19. About time someone blogged about the true reality about how people really feel about Facebook … I use Facebook under sufferance … Their needs to be an alternative, a few even! The problem for me is the it’s actually really BORING and everyone is always so happy about everything … It doesn’t reflect real life

  20. Milan, excellent post. I bailed on Facebook about 18 months ago, and haven’t looked back, for personal use. And you can delete your account, not just deactivate. I don’t think Zuck deletes the data, however.

    And since my work requires some access, so I created an alternate ego(name) at work to access and admin some pages we have. You are dead right.

    This video mashup by Erik Qualman says it best at the end: “The ROI of Social Media is that Your Business Will Still Exist in 5 Years. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nPYrbSUqr2k)

    And ironically, I also found this via Twitter.

  21. Strange…. no button here to like this or tweet it?

  22. Hmmm… all good points but it’s ashame that you neglected to mention the Federated Social Web, open social network tools such as Diaspora* and Identi.ca.. All hope’s not lost! While I may be using Facebook and Twitter now, I’m giving friends and acquaintances on both fair notice that in the near future I’ll be switching over permanently and that they should come over to the open web. So far, many have followed and seem glad they did.

  23. Martin: You can permanently delete your Facebook account by visiting a rather hidden page (linked below). Once you’ve requested your account to be deleted, you then have a 14 day “cool down” period. During this time any activity on your account will cancel the deletion process. This includes logging in, using a Facebook Connect app or clicking the Like Button anywhere on the web. Phew!

    And the page in question: https://www.facebook.com/help/contact.php?show_form=delete_account

  24. The situation would not have been so sad if Myspace, Bebo, Hi5, Orkut etc survived substantially and there were at least a dozen or more social nets. But unfortunately, now thousands and thousands of websites have just become “slave” to FB where they show FB buttons and icons even if we do not want to see. The more critical areas are where you are forced to register or login with FB and even comment using FB plugins (example Techcrunch). I do not know why this is not antitrust and why epic dot org is not active about this. Google Plus devlopment is slow and they still do not have comment plugin, and Myspace sinks every day while Yahoo has killed its social web Y360 (as also Geocities). Development with Diaspora and Appleseed and onewebsocial etc are toooo slow to make any real dent. Even Tim Lee in his latest note seems to be somewhat frustrated. I really really wish the present gen was not so blind just to become “slave” FB users and not to see the beauty and charm that internet really was – a collection of interconnected sites with independence and **variety**, not just cookiecutter FB pages. A few points to note is that FB ads are not as successful as may have been projected, FB has lot of fake stats promoted via its successful PR machine (a tactics not applied or failed application by Yahoo and Google and MS), and last but not the least many are aghast with FB (only that they are forced like in Techcrunch and other sites to use FB) and let us hope their number quickly increases to bring the open internet it was. If that not happens internet is a lost dream, really, and just a monopoly of Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple.

  25. The temptation to post this link to FB so that they can see how badly they’re being ‘had’ is quite strong!

  26. I lost more of my illusions on winning the fight against exploits. We already lost the fight with the spammers, trackers and others, fighting this battle against their advanced algoritms for crawling and disguise and loosely clustered virtual worldwide conglomerates with automatic fallback opportunities for tunneling messages back and forth from the object of spamming to the initiator of spam etc. (Spam 2.0).
    On social media platforms this phenomenon however may be a more advanced version of the same exploit (Spam 3.0), in which additionally (process flow driven and user-event driven) semantic link following and building is done, using advanced processing algoritms, with the aim of gathering data valuable for their given purpose.

    The freedom of the web is both it’s handicap and it’s strenght.
    But there may be some light at the “end” of the (spiral) tunnel: we are free to degrade the value of the very product they seek to harvest and process.
    The business process of these social media seems to use the freedom of the web to harvest raw data or (web 3.0) data with added semantic value to transform it into usefull marketable (intermediate) products.
    In order to prevent the exploitation of this data for influencing us beyond our consent.
    We are free to add nonsense data with a high “semantic” value in our context of things, intermixing “dirty” data with our “clean” personal raw data and thereby virally infecting their databases and the semantic thruth value of our non-autorised personal data. The very reason they exist would force social media to shift the focus to more valuable clean personal data, with explicit user permission, or else to make costly adjustments to the semantic reasoning logics.
    Of course this autorised “clean” dataset should not be part of their virtual platform of data or should only enter their database when accompanied by our “dirty” data.

    But there may also be other less dramatic approaches out there, f.e. highly organized user-interest platforms (inside or outside of the social media platform) for acting as an agent in the interest of the general or specific user; organized user demands for progressive protection against forbidden intentional use of personal data information; independant rating of the social media platform’s activities on a reliability scale accompanied with automated mechanisms for protection in the user platform.

    At the moment the default use of our data is often without our intention or permission (based on a default user policy setting). The reason for this may be that the data is easier to harvest this way and it makes the company more marketable to a buyer.
    So to sum up: if you can’t beat them join them, but influence those who influence you.

  27. dear Adrian,

    Most of the time you’re right. However, remember that G, FB, or T are domain owners / holders, so they are free to do whatever pleases them. It’s the same basic principle of freedom, that you use and maybe enjoy.

    It is just their magnitude that bothers you ? Is the fact that zillions of naive webmasters did chose to use the “Like” button ? The pity of them just search exposure, as every webmaster does.

    They make alliances with the strongest, in order to survive. And you know why ? Because they think they have something important, real, and solid (for the other) to be shared, to be spoken and heard around them. In fact, most of them DON’T, they just to gather sheeps around them, to make a quick buck, right ?

    For this reason – and billion others – the guilty part in this story is this “other door guy” that accepted to advertise the G+ button, or the Like button of FB, and so on.

    And you know why ? Because they are not just happy (as you are) with saying “look at me, this is me, those are my thoughts, this is my page”, or “this is my web identity and creation, for anyone looking at it, or anyone reading this page and asking my ‘online ID sign’, but those are different, they say “not only look at me, but share with others about who I am, make me renowned, please, do it, here are the buttons to use it”.

    It’s like those webmasters hang on their doors a ‘digital ID sign’ that is not just a piece of “paper” as it might be, but also having a loudspeaker attached to it.

    To those b-a-d webmasters I would answer that: “please don’t use me to promote yourself, ok ? Be happy that I wrote your page, give me your free content, and earn your business, please not use me as your salesman, because I won’t be that stupid for you.

    You know why ? Because in most cases, sharing is being stupid (because you don’t have original content to post it by yourself). People that just share links as as “look, ma, what is in that store!!”

    My insight is somehow different than yours as follows:
    1…. first class net citizens – those who post blogs, opinions, whatever.
    2…. second class citizens – those who comment (they cannot make an exert power just because they ANSWER, but not CHALLENGE, as bloggers do)
    3…. third class – those that just share what they see around.

    Those last poor bastards cannot even re-word (and create own blog posts by themselves) in order to gain power. No, they just repeat as point the fingers toward a site or another.

    I hope I was clear.

    PS. My comment here is MY content, even if is hosted in your webpage, therefore I copy it and take it with me, for my own use, too.

    Thank you again for your topic.

    Cheers.

  28. Pretty dull article. Facebook tracks u.If u don’t like it don’t go on it.If you’re doing more than chit-chat on it go to a more secure place.Yawn.

  29. I enjoy the approach in which you have talked about this particular subject. Very helpful.
    I look forward to reading the other comments.

  30. It is true. And it is scary. Sadly, I don’t think everybody ‘opting out’ of Facebook (read: abandoning) will fix things. The next big player (be it Google, Amazon, ..) would just step up. Neither are initiatives like Diaspora (that don’t seem to get a real ‘hold’). So what is the solution?

    In the mean while, lets make sure we cherish our ‘own domains’ and the content that is on there. And ‘grab’ as much as possible (or desired) from our posts on G+, Facebook, Twitter, … using API’s and Feeds? It’s our IP after all?

  31. I slightly disagree about Google+ being as bad… Google at least has the motto of ‘don’t be evil’ – whereas FB has no compunction about how it uses the data it collects.

  32. There is an extension for Chrome called Disconnect which stops Facebook tracking your web activity, but still allows you to use Facebook: https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/jeoacafpbcihiomhlakheieifhpjdfeo

  33. @Anonymous, the like button is an iframe. A request is sent to facebook anyway (with any cookie they could have saved).

  34. this blog posts represents exactly what I think about this whole facebook situation, well done!

  35. You can use the Priv3 extension to Firefox, in combination with the CertPatrol addon.

    Priv3 will disable the Like, +1, etc. buttons.
    CertPatrol will allow you to watch SSL certificate hierarchies, and actually reject those who don’t want to use.

    See my blogs about these issues at https://n-1.cc/pg/blog/read/100742/finetuning-firefox-for-privacy

    But I came here to mention a couple of projects that might make your day: one is the continuation of PSYC and is not really “webby”: it’s aimed at P2P friend-to-friend sharing (“private” social network if you wish) it sits at secushare.org

    The other one is the latest joint of Ward Cunningham, and it’s about federated wikis. You run it on localhost and can share your changes in two ways: either you’re online at your own domain and you can give the URLs of your pages for synchronization, or you can propagate the changes by Git. The second way isn’t properly aknowledged ATM in my opinion, but the whole thing is very interesting. Have a look on Github at https://wardcunningham.github.com/ and on http://localhost:1111/ :)

  36. Great article … it made me think about my blog (using wordpress), my Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and finally also my Google+ Accounts! I fully admit that I used to be one of the first Facebook enthusiasts in Switzerland. Over the years I grew more and more cautious but by now I guess I have already crossed the line of no return. These social networks already know far too much about my person. Therefore I decided to use these platforms as good as possible to drive my business and get as much in return of my information as possible.
    I’m looking forward to your next posts and I will gladly link to this post from my own blog.