Geek Level: Not overly technical, but aimed at developers and entrepreneurs.
Frustration with Facebook has appeared to reach a tipping point recently. Changes to the service have always drawn criticism and even outrage from various users, but after the latest updates, I’m seeing more people talk seriously about leaving the site. Consequently, some people have begun looking for alternatives, and a few have even started trying to build their own.
I’m among those looking for alternatives. I’ve held back from closing my account several times in the past due to a large network of friends, but my concerns continue to rise. Few other options exist, though, and any service looking to compete directly with Facebook faces an uphill battle.
Consider this post my advice to anyone who wants to tackle that challenge.
1. Avoid Pitfalls in Planning
When I’ve observed people discussing Facebook competition thus far, they invariably seem to fall prey to what I see as two mistakes. First, they focus almost entirely on the development side: what back-end technologies to support, what formats to use for data exchange, protocols for such interactions, etc. All of these aspects are important to consider, but I contend that you need to start by looking at the user side of the equation: mapping out the features you will sell to average people, designing interfaces with usability and simplicity in mind, creating processes and workflows that anyone can understand.
Second, many critics of Facebook focus on how the company fails to be “open,” a term that has long since entered buzzword territory. Ask a developer about their Facebook replacement, and they’ll probably start by telling you how it uses the Open Stack, with tools such as OpenID, OAuth, and Activity Streams. I have no problem with using these formats in a new site, but once again, you ultimately have to focus on your users. If you want your product to find mainstream adoption, you’ll have to convince average consumers that using it is worth any difficulty involved in leaving Facebook. Most people don’t care so much about whether technology is “open” or “closed” so long as it works. (Case in point: iPhone.) Rather than starting your plans by picking which “open” standards you’ll use, start by designing a better social networking service and then determine how “open” specs will help you build that service.
2. Think Through Your Setup
While I don’t recommending starting with too many technical details in planning, you still need to think through how the general structure of your application will work. Social networking services tend to involve a number of interlocking components, and the nature of the content involved can invoke problems other services don’t normally face.
For instance, nearly every Facebook alternative I’ve heard about thus far is built to be a distributed system, connecting multiple servers or platforms together into an aggregated network. This offers a number of advantages over Facebook’s centrally controlled setup.
But it also brings a number of disadvantages and hurdles that ought to be addressed. Say your social graph on a distributed service includes 500 friends, with profiles spread across 100 different servers. What sort of performance will you get when you need to pull data from 100 sources to build a news feed? If you use caching, how will you handle data retention and expiration to respect others’ privacy? What sort of fail-safe measures will be in place if a few servers are down? How will you establish trust relationships or handle malicious users? How will security vulnerabilities in one server affect others on the network? How will you ensure every server stays updated with the latest patches or features? All these questions and more come into play with distributed social networking, and I’ve yet to see many of them satisfactorily addressed by current offerings.
3. Learn from Academic Researchers
Many people in the academic community are producing research that addresses how people interact both offline and online, as well as how people understand concepts of privacy and social networking. As websites continue to reshape the fabric of our society and Facebook in particular affects notions of privacy, you simply can’t afford to ignore these studies.
While I wouldn’t want to neglect the work of anyone in this field of academics, I particularly respect and recommend works by danah boyd. For example, her talks on “Making Sense of Privacy and Publicity” and “Privacy and Publicity in the Context of Big Data” are must-read material for anyone looking to enter the world of social networking development. I’d also advise learning about the Helen Nissenbaum‘s concept of “contextual integrity,” explained well in a series of articles by Michael Zimmer. Fred Stutzman and Kaliya Hamlin (though she’s strictly not in academia) are just a few more of the many people I’ve come across who are contributing to our understanding of social media. Get familiar with more than just the technical implications of social networking: understand the social side.
4. Relationships are Not Digital
I understand that the Internet has created new possibilities and methods for people to relate to one another, and I’m not arguing there’s anything inherently wrong with those developments. But I do think some online applications generally employ constructs that fail to resemble many offline relationships. For example, many online connections with other people are essentially binary – friend or not, follower or not. Making such a connection often involves a subscription to the other person’s entire stream generated updates, regardless of type or content. Control over those updates can be limited or confusing.
I recognize that providing effective communication channels that avoid being cumbersome but also reflect social norms is a daunting prospect. It’s no wonder most of the sites we’ve seen thus far have followed previous online models of communication, such as the simple dichotomy of public discussions and private messaging. But I think it’s time we reevaluate some of our ideas about how sharing content should look and seek out new methods for staying in touch.
Of course, with this point I’m really advocating for a Facebook alternative that addresses a certain market: an online service that helps people leverage technology to stay better connected with their offline friends and associates. Remember, my overall message here is to build a better Facebook. It’s not enough to make things more open, or offer more privacy controls, or integrate with more sites. You need to provide more value. And personally, I see a great opportunity to provide more value in finding better ways for people to stay in touch. As someone who lives in a different state than the majority of my friends and family, I have enough trouble keeping up with people even with Facebook, but getting rid of my account would make that task more difficult. I would love to see a service that improves on Facebook in this area, and I imagine many others would as well.
One other note on this point: I would love to see a service try and tackle the issue of multiple identities with a more elegant solution than letting users create multiple accounts.
5. Don’t Overdo Privacy Settings
Given the uproar over Facebook’s lack of certain privacy controls and the amount of time I’ve spent talking about privacy controls, this point may seem a bit strange. But “privacy” is not simply about having granular, detailed settings for every bit of content or feature on a site. Too many choices will easily overwhelm users, and while powerful controls may help enterprises manage permissions on resources, most people don’t have the time to manage a plethora of menus and check boxes.
This ties back into previous advice on understanding the social side of social networking. Don’t simply rely on the sort of controls that you as a developer or systems administrator use for managing data. In some cases, you may even need to simplify things by eliminating layers. For instance, Facebook provides separate settings for both the photos application as a whole and the photo albums within the application. I would argue getting rid of the former and displaying available albums based on the current context.
From a high level, I think privacy controls need to clearly but concisely communicate two things to a user: who can access the data and where (or how) may the data be publicized. Whatever settings you include need to be simple enough to maintain usability but clear enough to avoid any unpleasant surprises.
6. Reduce the Noise
Facebook and other services thrive on people sharing content. These sites push people to produce more content and increase the flow of information. However, I would contend that while access to increased information can bring many benefits, we have to balance that notion with the understanding that more knowledge is not always better and that increased information does not always need to broadcast. Many online users are suffering from severe information overload, and better filters alone are not going to solve the problem. It’s time we dialed back some on the production of content to begin with.
Please don’t misunderstand my position here: I’m not trying to put an end to Wikipedia or become some sort of content police. What I am saying is that our obsession with streams and the real-time web may be driving us to lose sight of other priorities. Just because your service can track and broadcast every activity your users perform doesn’t mean that it should.
7. Integrate with Facebook
This is one bit of advice I’ve not seen anywhere else thus far: If you want to beat Facebook, use Facebook’s features against it. Over the last several years, Facebook has provided more and more access to information for third-party developers. I’ve not seen any provisions that would prevent another social networking service from taking advantage of these methods.
I’ve often heard people talk about the idea of “taking your social graph with you,” but that’s not really the problem right now. It may be a bit complicated, but you can pretty much export your entire social graph from Facebook. The real problem is this: where do you take it to? The only “import” function for most sites involves scanning a list of e-mail addresses to find other users.
With Facebook’s APIs, though, you can simply connect your other social networking profile with your Facebook profile. Be warned that you should not simply assume people who do this will want any Facebook friends who sign up for your site to know about their profile or be their friend on your site. But you at least have options to make the transition much smoother.
Also, since people criticize Facebook for taking in more information than they give out, you can simply make sure data originates outside of Facebook. Your application can push status updates, messages, and content to Facebook, and then you already have a copy on your service. Besides, nowadays you can pull a user’s inbox, updates, notifications, and so on from Facebook as well.
8. Value What Your Users Value
Building a Facebook alternative includes many details to worry about, such as monetization, advertising, and privacy. But never forget what makes any service valuable: the people that use it. If your product becomes popular, that means people will be using it to share content they deem valuable and trusting you to store content they deem valuable. You will have to earn that trust and work hard to maintain it.
Communicate with your users in a helpful, honest way. Give them meaningful support options. Provide them with default privacy settings that protect them rather than surprise them. It can be fine to let users share everything with everyone if they want, but let the users decide and empower them to choose the path they want rather than push them towards one approach.
And above all, keep providing a service that people find useful. The real reason so many people still use Facebook is that the benefits outweigh any difficulties or privacy concerns. If you’re going to compete with Facebook, you’ll have to top that.
(Oh and one last bit of advice: come up with a good, professional name for your start-up. Please.)
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