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It’s the end of the web as we know it (adrianshort.co.uk)
225 points by rudenoise on Sept 26, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 67 comments

Aren't these doomsday-posts getting boring?

Here's my take:

Stop worrying. According to internet physics facebook will gradually diffuse into distributed services.

The first mass migration away from the silos is likely going to happen as early as within this decade. As soon as some kid in his basement creates a set of viable protocol specs (read: not diaspora) and as soon as a few relentless hackers smell blood in the water.

Once initiated no Zuckerberg or Schmidt has the resources to argue with the second law of thermodynamics. The social graph is destined to gravitate outwards until it's more or less evenly distributed over our always-on devices. Supported by a network of interchangeable service-providers for caching, storage and, of course, "apps".

There you have it. But don't let that stop you from writing the next series of sky-is-falling posts. They're part of the process.

When has this "diffusion into distributed services" happened before? It seems to me the trend is most often in the other direction.

There were once many search engines, now there is Google. Usenet was a distributed system; now there are centralized forums. Email was once something that was largely administered locally, now everyone has a Gmail account. Sharing things with friends and family used to be done through a constellation of different services, like blogs and Flickr and email. Now Facebook does all of those things.

Go back a bit further to the days of the big online services like AOL, Compuserve, Prodigy, etc. I mean before they were ISPs. They competed with the internet and lost, because they couldn't match the wild creativity unleashed by the web, which made everyone a publisher/broadcaster/developer/priest.

Social networks have taken a few of the biggest distributed applications of the web and started mass producing them, in watered down form. But notice how they have to keep absorbing every new fad that comes along? The coup will start with some platform that allows ideas to be realized faster than the networks can clone them.

But Facebook isn't closed off from the internet. The internet is now using Facebook's APIs to tie the two ever closer.

I'm pretty sure those services were all on the internet before they died.

I'd argue this way:

Search is not easily distributable and will remain silo'ed up for a long time.

GMail is huge. But SMTP is still a distributed protocol, you can switch providers in a blink and not lose anything other than a shiny interface.

NNTP was always run in a hierarchical fashion and more importantly is centered around discussion groups. People a) prefer more control over their publishing/group-comm (blogs, forums) and b) demand the "follow individual" pattern (RSS).

Consequently the Usenet-monolith shattered into said services, all of which you can either run on your own server, or rent from a service-provider.

Sharing always sucked and that is the niche (apart from the social graph) that made Facebook big. However, today we can build mashups that plug into all these services and present them under a unified interface - just as pretty as facebook.

The only missing bit to lace it all together is the social graph. Today our little mashup has to load the graph from either facebook, twitter or google.

In the future some smart kid will come up with a "DNS[1] for social relations" and everyone will start using that, just because it's the natural thing to do and because futzing with proprietary API-keys is so 2011.

[1] As in Domain Name System

But SMTP is still a distributed protocol, you can switch providers in a blink and not lose anything other than a shiny interface.

I think you may underestimate the importance of the shiny interface. Regardless, the use of an outside provider is still a move toward centralization. Ten years ago, the small offices I did software work in all had local email servers. Today, running an email server well is a big job, and those offices all outsource their email service to much larger companies.

People ... demand the "follow individual" pattern (RSS) ... In the future some smart kid will come up with a "DNS for social relations"

It's interesting that you bring up RSS. I was thinking about that too. I think RSS is already very nearly a "DNS for social relations." But it's also failed to catch on outside the circle of techies, early adopters, and web-potatoes.

I'd say the failure of RSS to achieve mainstream popularity is an example of a decentralized system losing out to centralized alternatives. Like Facebook. Facebook is just plain simpler to get started with than a self-administered approach like RSS or a hypothetical next-generation DNSfSR would be. And Facebook and Twitter both killed off their RSS feeds once they'd felt they'd achieved a certain critical mass. They understand that RSS is an alternative for much of what they do.

I don't celebrate any of this. I use and like RSS. I wish I didn't feel the need for a Facebook account (but that's where my real-world friends are). But the pattern I see is that convenience beats out control every time. For complicated devices like computers and for complicated situations like the (real, human) social network, the inevitable complexity that comes along with local, personal control is often a problem, not a feature.

Under such circumstances, I don't see how Facebook (or its successor) will be overtaken by a distributed anything.

> Search is not easily distributable and will remain silo'ed up for a long time.

Faroo seem to be doing a pretty good job, although their UI could do with some love.

I have a gmail account, but I don't use it. I would say the same for any business. No business with any sense is going to rely on Gmail for their internal business communications.

No business with any sense is going to rely on Gmail for their internal business communications

http://www.google.com/apps/intl/en/customers/ says you are wrong.

And I don't think that's a bad thing - Facebook is a problem, not Google. Don't tar every company with the same brush.

Any companies on that list using Gmail as their primary email service are foolish. But I'm not sure why you think I was somehow equating Facebook with Google simply because I don't agree that everyone has Gmail and is using it.

I use google apps to host my email for my company, with all emails backed up to our server. Why is that foolish?

Ah, now here's a different thing: should a comet fall on Google's data centres, you still keep your data. I infer that you probably thought about privacy risks. I also suppose your company's email address isn't "@gmail.com". That would be foolish.

Despite the other comments, I completely agree with you.

It's just foolish to give up control of one of the most important communication resources your business has to a company with a notoriously poor customer service record.


That's your prerogative, of course, but more and more businesses are outsourcing their internal email to an outside service. Sometimes that's the commercial version of Gmail and sometimes it's a competitor.

Regardless, that seems like a move toward central control rather than toward anything I'd describe as a distributed service.

I'd bring up that "outsourcing their internal email" is not the same thing as "using Gmail". But as to your point about centralization, companies (like Facebook) have tried for years to centralize data and it hasn't worked yet. Microsoft has tried it, IBM has tried it, and Google continues to try it.

I think the issue is that there is difference between allowing people to log into an account with Facebook and companies actually sharing their data with each other. There's also the reality that as companies die, merge or change course, the massive amounts of data they have often simply becomes unused.

Quite a few do. Why do you think this wouldn't make sense?

Have you ever suffered a Google outage? I don't mean the kind of system-wide failure that gets all Googleplex hands on deck. I mean the kind of random, individual catastrophe that comes with a crash-course in just how astonishingly unreachable the Googleplex really is.

Yes, I have first hand experience with this. Dealing with Google "support" taught me a harsh reality that Google simply isn't interested in support in the way that Fortune 500 companies need and expect.

It comes down to the not-so-subtle difference between "customer" and "user".

Reminds me of the joke about there being two kinds of people in the world; those who have lost data, and those who will.

The first is support - Google isn't in the business of keeping you in business.

The second is that you are turning over all of your internal communication, almost all of which should never leave the company, to a third party.

> The first is support - Google isn't in the business of keeping you in business.

I'm not sure I understand this. Why isn't Google in the business of making sure its paying customers stay in business?

> The second is that you are turning over all of your internal communication, almost all of which should never leave the company, to a third party.

How is this any different from storing source code on GitHub, or using Campfire to communicate?

How is this any different from storing source code on GitHub, or using Campfire to communicate?

A very reasonable argument is that you shouldn't be using those either. GitHub is fine for open source projects but if I were involved in writing proprietary code I'd probably not put it up there.

Out of interest, why not? Is it that you don't trust GitHub's security, or do you believe there's a chance GitHub might appropriate your source code?

Think conflict of interest. What if GitHub was bought be a competitor or other hostile entity? Now, can you guarantee they never will be?

You can't guarantee anything. It's all about trade-offs and managing risks. Putting your source code onto a private server doesn't guarantee that your source code is safe, and there are far more examples of source code being stolen from private servers than there are of companies appropriating source code from hosting companies like GitHub.

This is true. But would the story get out if it happened? And it's not limited to appropriation. There are stories about, say, Assembla, and the terms of code storage changing dramatically. You could also have a company where the security on transferring the code was inadequate. That's a concern you don't have as much if your servers are local (though you need VPN for remote coders).

It's also hard to talk percentages -- there are a lot more companies storing source code on private servers than using external hosting. So yes, more stories of that, but it's hard to talk percentage chance rather than absolute numbers.

Is the risk large enough to justify using a more expensive and less functional in-house system? To me, the risk of using a third-party host seems vastly outweighed by the benefits.

What's the alternative for a small company? Our ISP's mail servers?

Where does one draw the line?

Well written articles never get boring to me, even if I don't agree with the author or if it's not really new information or particularly deep in some sense. I found this article a very good read.

Could you give an argument, why there should be something like internet physics, which follows the laws of thermodynamics or the laws of gravitation? To me this sounds rather metaphoric and like an abuse of terminology.

>Once initiated no Zuckerberg or Schmidt has the resources to argue with the second law of thermodynamics.

Life processes move in the direction opposite of the 2nd law. Though I generally agree, if we view the market and technology as evolving we should see oscillation between diffusion and convergence.

I get your point, but I'm still uncertain about whether to feel happy or disappointed at the fact that everything goes in circles.

We (the internets :D) spend all this time getting out of the AOL walled garden, only to go back to the Facebook walled garden. Seems like an utter waste of effort.

But maybe the glass is half full, and we will be out of here soon.

> Seems like an utter waste of effort.

In a sense, isn't your entire social life a waste of effort? Even if you think the ultimate goal is to construct the ultimate hivemind, massive cultural flip flops can still represent progress.

I think something big has to happen before people start leaving. Diaspora can launch tomorrow, but I don't think people will start flocking to it. Most end users don't care about stuff like this.

I'm inclined to think the same way, that there is some kind of natural / emergent property of networks that acts as a counterbalance. Trouble is, how do we know this isn't just wishful thinking.

It's less an emergent or mystical property of networks, and more a function of human psychology. The decision to keep using Facebook, or to abandon Facebook for alternatives, depends on each user's calculation of Upside vs. Downside. As soon as alternatives emerge that offer equal or greater upside with less downside, users leave for those alternatives.

The one thing keeping Facebook alive and well right now is that no alternatives yet exist whose upside outweighs the hassle of losing all of one's Facebook friends, data, etc. (In economic terms, this is known as a very high switching cost).

Sooner or later, though, it's possible that a) more alternatives will emerge; b) some of these alternatives will be massively more attractive than FB for one reason or another; or c) FB will become increasingly annoying via feature creep, privacy concerns, homogenization of experience due to lowest common denominators among users. I'm banking on "c." There are, and will be, viable competitors to Facebook. But these competitors won't get a lot of attention, relatively speaking, until Facebook becomes more annoying than it is convenient.

So because someone, at some indeterminate point in the future will create something that doesn't yet exist, none of this matters now?

While ultimately true in the long run, in the long run, we ultimately all die, too.

There you have it. "Doomsday" is really a matter of perspective.

There are a few things people/organizations can do that have at least some marginal impact. For example, actually have a website, and attempt to treat it as the canonical source of information. Use Facebook and Twitter, sure, but don't make them your canonical website, the way many bands made their MySpace page their only website. Have the social-network stuff point back to the real website when possible. Post links to news stories or blog posts on your domain, rather than using Facebook Notes as a blog, for example. Have an actual event page that gets mirrored to Facebook events, rather than Facebook events being your only event calendar. Etc.

(This is assuming you have the time/resources/interest in doing so. It's often easier not to, but in the long run I do think it's important to control your canonical internet presence, and as much as possible to try to point the presences you don't control towards the one you do.)

Just not having a Facebook account is much more effective; once people notice that they have to e-mail someone, they may as well e-mail everyone. Etc. Facebook is most useful if everyone is on it.

(Yes, there are downsides to this, but let's not pretend that setting up a blog-to-Facebook converter harms Facebook. Just stick with the blog.)

Using Facebook as your RSS feed for your blog drives readers to your blog (i.e. just post the links, don't post the content).

I fail to see where the parent was talking about 'harming' Facebook. This entire discussion is about keeping control over your Internet presence. If you use a domain that you control as your canonical presence, then you can easily sign up for whatever the social network of the day is and use it to direct people back to your domain. This extends beyond this though:

For example, if you use a GMail/Hotmail/Yahoo email address as your main email address, then you're completely dependent on these companies to provide the service. If they ever change policies or start doing things that you don't like, there is a large barrier to just switching services. On the other hand, if you purchase your own domain and use that for email on such services (e.g. Google Apps for Domains), then you can easily switch services without needing to tell everyone that may want to contact you about your new email address.

In general, you can still use free services, just so long as you wrap your domain around them so that you can point people elsewhere if things change.

I run a major hospital's website and have long stood against putting Facebook 'Like' buttons on the site. This article strengthens my resolve.

Lots of patients visit hospital websites to research shame conditions - things nobody but their physician has any right/need to know about. Least of all an organization as brazenly anti-privacy as Facebook.

Bumbling around this afternoon I came across a number of hospital websites using Like buttons. I have fired up a Mechanical Turk job to give me a more complete list of US hospitals that do so.

Not sure what I'm going to do with the list yet - name and shame or just a broad education campaign? Seems pretty awful to potentially violate patient privacy in the interest of an extra 'share' or two.

Privacy issues aside, the Open Graph is troubling to me because it centralizes innovation in web services to the Facebook network.

In the short term is makes sense for a new service like Spotify or turntable.fm to jump on the largest user base in the world, it lowers their barrier to entry. But in the long term it's really harmful to the open web and leads down a depressing path in my opinion. What happens if you DO opt-out of FB, but future services require a FB account?

I just killed the Facebook like button on my personal website (not that my site gets a lot of hits). I've signed up for a Diaspora* invite which should be sent to me by "the end of October". I'll set it up for my friends but I don't know who would actually join it, it's not like people need another social networking service. Not sure what else the solution could be though.

I wonder if it's possible that these services swing back around and actually offer a charged service without ads. Twitter for instance can offer a free rate that leaves you open to targeted advertising and data collection, but they'll leave you alone if you have a paid account. How much would I have to pay FB per month to make it worthwhile to them?

In my opinion, the article states that without Facebook or Twitter, one can't have a reliable online business. He says:

  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.
I don't agree. I don't care about Facebook and Twitter. I USE it just a little bit, but people find my online business by other means. I believe good content and useful services always attract their users - even without sites like Facebook and Twitter. They are just tools in my eyes.

One of the comments on the OP's page makes an interesting point:

>> This now creates a new level of Service offering for a website; not offering a Facebook Like or Social graphing tool might be seen as a bonus if your trying to promote privacy or respect of peoples data.

Do we have any website right now following and acknowledging this ?

I run a bug tracker for small shops and freelancers (http://trackjumper.com) - right at the border of business vs consumer applications. I chose not to integrate any third party logins (facebook especially) for exactly this reason. I did not, however, take the step of advertising it as a "feature". Perhaps I should.

Everything old will be new again, just give it a few more years.

Once everyone is on a single service that all looks the same, individual websites will become the "cool" thing again.

True. It appears everything in the world of software moves in cycles. I hope we're approaching the bottom part of the openness cycle with things like these social web silos, "only apps we like" app stores, secure booting, so forth. The question is, what will be the next big thing after these, and how we can prepare for it?

(well, it is also relevant to wonder about the timeline. The relatively open PC era after closed mainframes lasted about twenty years.)

This is so true.

>> 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

With the web applications I've been building during the last years, I often had to think hard about my "Facebook policy". If you have any chance of virality, the Facebook platform can at least double it (I guess that the multiplier is much higher, actually).

The first time I considered creating an integration with FB, though, I studied how it worked and stopped when I discovered that I could NOT get my users' email [note: I think this isn't true now, I didn't really check though]. That meant that even those users that came directly to my website, but wanted to login using facebook, wouldn't have really become "my" users, that I would have always been dependent on FB.

Facebook changes its policies very often, so this particular problem could not be current anymore, but the fact remains that we should be very careful in helping a company which is building the biggest walled garden on the internet by adding too much value to it. Because now the gates are open, but FB can close them whenever they see fit.

Right now I'm considering again creating an integration with Facebook for one of my new services, but I'll try as hard as possible to steer the users to my actual website, even if this wouldn't be as frictionless as it could be for them. Bigger issues are at stake.

> Facebook changes its policies very often...

That is half of facebook's problem. Facebook has pissed off a lot of developers by changing their platform so frequently, often without telling people in advance, that it makes little sense for small-time apps or sites to invest time in it. Not to mention their documentation is laughably out of date or just missing.

Facebook might be doing real well with mindshare amongst the end-user, but they have not done so great with developers.

Couple of comments:

1) I'm now recommending to my friends to log out of Facebook and visit it in a private/incognito browsing mode. Probably the same thing needs to be applied to Google sites.

2) More importantly, I think it's a bit simplistic to divide the web into "open web" and "Big Web". There are sites that fall in between the wild west of linking and social networking sites. Hacker News is one of these. So is Reddit and StumbleUpon. These sites generate a huge number of page views. In fact, I would guess that they generate more page views for people with only a few thousand followers on social networks.

Even if you don't hit the front page of HN, every submission is automatically posted to Twitter (and probably Facebook, I wouldn't know), so the chances of it going viral are just as strong as if you had posted it yourself. These in-between sites allow you to gain the benefits of Big Web without directly participating in it.

I have been doing point 1 of your list too. I went a little further too. And even tried the QubeOS. (http://qubes-os.org)

It has the same idea as an incognito browser window, but taken to the OS level. It is very interesting.

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.

Source? I've never heard that before. My understanding of the above is that Facebook will store, on their servers, all of the pages I visit that display a Like button.

Edit: The previously linked to article in the essay supports the claim: http://news.cnet.com/8301-13578_3-20006532-38.html I was unaware that Facebook was able to retain information even if users didn't actually press the Like button.

He linked to that post in his, but that proves the data is transferred, not that it is stored. The article I missed, though, does make the claim that Facebook stores the data, and it is associated with a user.

I don't think it's possible to figure out if it's stored, as facebook would have to own up to it, and why would they. This data gives them massive power, why wouldn't they store it? If I were them I would.

Facebook has said that they retain the information for short periods to detect fraud. http://blogs.wsj.com/digits/2011/09/26/facebook-defends-gett...

worth mentioning, google analytics does this too. and it's probably on more websites than facebook like buttons. also, you don't need to opt in to anything to activate google's version, at least with facebook you have to have an account. with google all you have to do is visit these sites with cookies switched on, something pretty much everyone does without thinking.

I wish everyone would stop repeating this. Like most things it is much more subtle than that.

Google Analytics is widespread, but unlike Facebook it gives you the tools to protect your privacy if you so choose. That is an important difference and is worth noting.

fair enough, I didn't intend to be repeating an untrue mantra. could you explain how I would opt out? I know they provide privacy controls to opt out of web search history, but analytics on a clean browser will assign me a unique id, it will then use that id to track me on every page I go to, without even being logged in to any google services at all. that sounds like being opted in without my consent to me. maybe I'm wrong and I missed it, how would I protect my privacy in this (very widespread) case?

Google offers browser add-ons to opt out of analytics tracking: http://tools.google.com/dlpage/gaoptout

It's too complex for most, yes. But just use only facebook in say, Chrome, and every other site in say, Firefox. All the sites you use in firefox won't link through to your facebook account via cookies, bugs/buttons or js.

Firefox should/will also get a facebook spying blocker as chrome now has. Microsoft is real friendly with fb, so they'll never implement this.

The concept I agree with is the Web will look much less like the Wild Wild West. The Web of Grandma needs easily integrated pieces - this is Apple and Facebook, not Linux and Usenet.

It's not all evil, there will still be behind the curtain users. It's just they won't be as visible. People who aggregate customers charge for the right. Just ask Wal-mart!

I have my own website and always post there first. My system then automatically posts to Facebook, Twitter, and so on. That's the way to do it I think. Of course Facebook doesn't like that and the API never allows you to have the post look quite as good as if you were posting directly, but it's plenty for me.

> and even writing stories just like this one

Alright, that is a bit farfetched.

… and I feel fine. ( apologies to Bill Berry et al, and my karma )

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.

Uh. Anyone else remember the days of curated Internet directory sites? Yahoo was just a huge, organized database of links. Didn't make it to a good standing on Yahoo's directory? Too bad for you. Luckily, search technology matured and (largely) freed us from that.

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