Is it Too Late For an Open Source Challenge to Facebook?

by Ostatic Staff - Nov. 23, 2010

If you're like most people, you're spending a lot more time on social networks than you ever did before. Perhaps you use the open source social networking solutions, such as, but, more likely, you use Facebook, Twitter and the other social networking tools that are currently driven by mass contagion. This week, none other than the founder of the web, Tim Berners-Lee, pronounced that social networks are a "threat to the web." Is he right?

"Large social-networking sites are walling off information posted by their users from the rest of the web," Berners-Lee said in a Scientific American journal article. As Network World reports, Berners-Lee even singled out Facebook, LinkedIn and Friendster as examples of what he means.

We have made the point many times that the problem with the large, popular social networks is that they are walled gardens.  At the last OSCON conference, today's popular social networking services were compared to the closed systems of the 1990s. In those days, it wasn't uncommon to, say, need to be on MCI Mail or CompuServe to be able to send another person on one of those services a message. They were closed e-mail systems. People didn't tolerate that, and the current argument is that they won't tolerate walled gardens among social networking services either.

But people do tolerate these walled gardens--big time. Facebook is focused on its own version of email, its own version of payments, its own version of just about anything, with very little openness involved. People eat it up.

There are, of course, efforts to push open and open source social networking tools. We've written widely about open source attempts to break down the walled gardens of social networks, such as, exoSocial and Diaspora. But none of these have the traction that the Facebook's and LinkedIns have.

In his Scientific American piece, Berners-Lee also said: "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." He also singled out iTunes as having the same properties.

It would be an outstanding thing to see an open platform challenge the Facebooks of the world. Without a doubt, smart purveyors of such a platform could leverage the openness, and potentially win users over with it. That idea already prompted our post "Why Does FOSS Development Lag the Innovation Curve?" The funny thing is, though, even though open source platforms and applications compete in so many other application categories, there is almost no real competition from the open source community in the social networking space. That needs to change.