the walled-off internet, or why facebook and mobile apps are good for them and bad for us

Last summer, Allan and I had plans to meet a friend for dinner, and I Googled the restaurant to get the address and details. The place came up in Google right away, but I couldn't get to the website. After trying a few times, I realized the restaurant no longer had a website: it only had a Facebook page. I was at work, and can't access Facebook from my workplace.

This was the first time I had seen a company abandon a website in favour of a Facebook page. Since then, I've run into it a handful of times, especially with individual people's public pages. Where various people - writers, designers, techies, small business owners - would have once had a website where people could browse samples of their work and get general contact information, many have now moved to Facebook-only.

This is heading in exactly the wrong direction.

I understand why companies want to be on Facebook; that's a no-brainer. So many people use Facebook that tapping into it as a marketing tool is now the expected norm. But why Facebook only? Website development has never been easier or cheaper. You can use blog software, for example, to create a website with at least as many functions as a Facebook page, if not more. So why put your company behind an access wall?

Facebook is a gated community

The internet is a huge, sprawling, interconnected, free-for-all that anyone with any kind of device can access.

Facebook is a privately-owned, proprietary service. You must submit your personal information in order to enter it. It is not accessible on every device and in every setting.

The internet is a vibrant megalopolis, a global village in which instant transit is a mere click.

Facebook is a gated community.

Using Facebook as a substitute for websites creates a walled-off internet. This is great for Facebook, but bad for the rest of us, and very bad for the internet.

The first time I heard someone say "Facebook is not the internet," Impudent Strumpet was asking, "Do people actually use Facebook as a substitute for the Internet as a whole?" I could scarcely believe it. When I first got online in the mid-late-90s, many people used AOL as a gateway - and worse - didn't seem to realize they were doing so, and didn't know they didn't need to. A quick search for "Facebook is not the internet" and "walled-off internet" reveals that many people are using those antiquated methods again, this time with Facebook - which is bigger and more powerful (if not financially, than by any other metric) than AOL ever was.

Similarly, the first time someone sent me a message through Facebook instead of emailing, I was appalled. Why elevate this one social media, this one proprietary service, to the status of email, a communication form that is ubiquitous and necessary for daily life? Why force people to hand over their personal information in order to communicate with you? And why trust your personal conversations to a company who is known to steal and keep your information? I vowed never to use Facebook as email... until the first time I had no choice, because the only way to reach that person was through Facebook.

I'm guessing that many people who use Facebook as an email substitute don't recognize the difference between the two. Email is accessible anywhere. You can save your email offline for reference and documentation. You can email anonymously. There are privacy issues, of course, it's not a wholly secure system - but those privacy issues are an eyedropper in an ocean compared to the privacy issues on Facebook.

Apps are information silos

The rapid proliferation of mobile apps is also a movement in the wrong direction. Apps are information silos. The company that owns the app controls the information you access and how you access it. In the case of iPhone-only apps, they also control whether or not you can access them at all. Don't have an iPhone? Too bad, you can't get here. If enough information and functionality gets hidden behind iPhone apps, then increasing numbers of people will buy iPhones - and increasing numbers of people will be left out. Great for Apple Inc., not great for the internet.

When I first started using a handheld device, the HP iPAQ I used to gush over in these pages, the best websites had mobile versions. These sites recognized that you were using a mini-browser, so to speak, and automatically switched to the "m" version. You don't need the CBC News App to access CBC on your smartphone. CBC has a mobile website that works perfectly well. But CBC's television ads tout their app as "the only news app you'll ever need". That's precisely the point. Want to see news? Tap on your CBC app, your New York Times app, your Corporate Media app. Leave the interconnectivity of internet, come to a silo, with our information, our ads, and our point of view.

The alternative to Facebook and mobile apps is not a pure, ideal world where everything is free and your privacy is always assured. I'm aware that the free platform I'm using to write this blog is owned by an enormous information corporation whose privacy practices are not always stellar. But it's not my only option. There are alternative applications that serve the exact same purpose, and will produce the same results. This blog is free for anyone, anywhere, on any device. You don't have to buy a special device, or join Blogger, or register your personal data to access it. If I wanted to limit the readership of this blog to people of my own choosing, I could do that, too - without forcing friends of wmtc to shed their anonymity and submit personal data to a private company.

I'd like to think the Facebook phenomenon has crested and is beginning its downward slope, joining MySpace, LiveJournal, and all the other ghosts of internet past. But zillions of people (especially an older demographic) are only now joining Facebook, and zillions more (especially a younger demographic) are increasingly choosing to be dependent on Facebook for communication and information. They are not actually dependent on Facebook. I say "choosing to be dependent," to emphasize that it is a choice. A bad one.

Further reading

Facebook is not the Internet, an old-school site listing many reasons to give up your Facebook addiction or be glad you never developed one.

Facebook Is Not The Internet, an excellent post on why using a Facebook page instead of a website is bad business. "We need to stop this trend of Facebook getting more attention that personal domains...and it all starts with you."

Facebook is the Internet, right? "But when the main reason people are going to google.com is to search for facebook.com it has me a little worried."

One of the architects of the internet, Tim Berners-Lee, in arguing for net neutrality and open standards, argues against information silos and information giants.
Facebook, LinkedIn, Friendster and others typically provide value by capturing information as you enter it: your birthday, your e-mail address, your likes, and links indicating who is friends with whom and who is in which photograph. The sites assemble these bits of data into brilliant databases and reuse the information to provide value-added service—but only within their sites. Once you enter your data into one of these services, you cannot easily use them on another site. Each site is a silo, walled off from the others. Yes, your site’s pages are on the Web, but your data are not. You can access a Web page about a list of people you have created in one site, but you cannot send that list, or items from it, to another site.

The isolation occurs because each piece of information does not have a URI. Connections among data exist only within a site. So the more you enter, the more you become locked in. Your social-networking site becomes a central platform —a closed silo of content, and one that does not give you full control over your information in it. The more this kind of architecture gains widespread use, the more the Web becomes fragmented, and the less we enjoy a single, universal information space.

A related danger is that one social-networking site — or one search engine or one browser — gets so big that it becomes a monopoly, which tends to limit innovation. As has been the case since the Web began, continued grassroots innovation may be the best check and balance against any one company or government that tries to undermine universality. GnuSocial and Diaspora are projects on the Web that allow anyone to create their own social network from their own server, connecting to anyone on any other site. The Status.net project, which runs sites such as identi.ca, allows you to operate your own Twitter-like network without the Twitter-like centralization.

Time to Reject Content App Silos: an iPhone-user explains "What's Wrong with Apps" and why "The Web's Where It's At".

Imp Strump again: Is Web 2.0 making information less accessible?

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