• The cover of the 'Perl Hacks' book
  • The cover of the 'Beginning Perl' book
  • An
            image of Curtis Poe, holding some electronic equipment in front of
            his face.

How to Defeat Facebook



Disclaimer

Yes, I know, this is a big post. You're probably not going to read all of it and that's OK. I understand. However, if you know of others who feel that Facebook needs competition, please share this with them. You can't go up against a multi-billion dollar corporation with a tweet or a 3 paragraph blog entry.

Social Networking is Broken

Image of Mark Zuckerberg
Via Anthory Quintano

Chris Hughes, one of the founders of Facebook, has called for it to be dismantled . Needless to say this generated a ton of media coverage for one simple reason: social networks are broken. They’re driving us apart instead of bringing us together. You hop onto Facebook and see old friends from school spewing vile accusations about your favorite political party. Your beloved uncle is sharing another stupid meme while you sigh and search Snopes for a URL to post in response. You see close friends in relationships publicly, bitterly, "break up" online where everyone can read their accusations. And that's the mild stuff; the hard stuff is much, much worse.

You jump from news stories about Facebook being used to build support for genocide to foreign propaganda campaigns to manipulate elections to livestreaming a mass murder in New Zealand .

And it's not stopping, though Facebook is belatedly responding. They take down the livestreams of the regular rapes , the gang rapes , the child rapes , the murders and suicides , and more. This is somewhat better than in 2016 when Facebook refused to remove the livestream of a murder because "it doesn’t violate the company’s community standards" .

And before we go any further, just ask yourself one question: how can a company get so wrong that they think livestreaming murders isn't violating "community standards"?

The Opportunity

Let's see if we can figure this out. Facebook has 2.3 billion monthly active users , millions of whom want anything else, and 15 million of their most valuable customers have walked away since 2017 . Despite this, Facebook still basked in almost seven billion dollars in net income for the final quarter of 2018 . You would think that investors would be drooling at this. Millions of Facebook high-value customers are begging for a new market! Even more interesingly, there's little barrier to entry into this market.

Taking a percentage of Facebook's market share is a huge business opportunity but investors don’t seem to be biting. Why is that? And can it be changed?

An image of a mobile phone showing many social network icons
Guess which one is the 800-pound gorilla? Source

Well, as it turns out, investors were biting but they were also bitten. With seeing so many other social networks getting up, swinging, and missing, it's no wonder that investors today are wary. However, once you start diving into mess, you find that many otherwise savvy investors have fallen for tulip mania and haven't paid attention to the real issues customers care about. Thus, the contenders fail.

The Background

Many of these would-be competitors have tried to take on Facebook, with the recent Google Plus shutdown being one of the more dramatic failures. Given the long history, we need a lot of backstory to unpack what's going on here.

First, let's distinguish between a General Purpose Social Network, GPSN, and a Special Purpose Social Network, SPSN, (though there's a lot of grey area here). Many of the millions leaving Facebook for Instagram , are leaving a GPSN for a SPSN. Instagram is for sharing photos and videos. If you have no photos or videos to share, you may not find an Instagram account as appealing, though you may have one to follow others.

Twitter is closer to a GPSN, but it's still rather limited in its features (that, in itself, is a feature). Facebook, like Myspace, or the now-defunct Google Plus, is a GPSN. It has a wide variety of features that appeal to many people. Want to connect but don't want to share photos? Facebook. Want to connect and don't want to be limited to 280 characters? Facebook. Want to connect and regularly organize or participate in local events? Facebook. Want to have a richer reading experience about what your friends are doing? Facebook. Facebook has it all.

GPSNs are more geared towards general-purpose social networking without trying to shoehorn you into a particular mode of sharing. While many people enjoy a variety of social networks, Facebook dominates in in terms of daily user engagement , with half of its users logging on more than once a day.

The distinction between GPSN and SPSN is important because this article is only focusing on the former. The latter gets lots of traction in narrower markets and has a robust, lively community of competitors. GPSNs, however, have been reduced to "Facebook or nothing" as of this writing.

The Problem

Before we can really get down to the business case for a Facebook competitor, we need to understand why so many people are clamoring to leave Facebook. Once we do that, we can understand why so many David’s have falled before this Goliath. And once we do understand what is wrong with Facebook, the failures become almost obvious (given 20-20 hindsight).

First, let’s be crystal-clear about what Facebook has done right: they’ve created a generic product that has everyone with an internet connection as their target market. If you can connect to the net and you want to be social, Facebook is perfect for you. Of course, if you say "everyone is my target market" to an investor, that’s a quick way to get them to leave, but given Facebook’s 2 billion+ user accounts, we really do have a serious "everyone" claim here.

An image of three women smiling for a smartphone picture being taken by the man next to them.
We are social by nature. Source

Second, given that so many people on the net want to be social, the second major thing that Facebook has done right is not being absolutely awful at what they do. That sounds ridiculous, but when you look at the clown car of wanna-be competitors, it’s amazing how many of them actually got traction and then fell down because they weren’t up to the job, technically.

Third, given the fact that the core Facebook product started out rather limited, they’ve been smart enough to offer APIs to allow others to build value for Facebook , something that allows them to offer much more to the public without having to build it themselves. Just look at all of those annoying game requests you get to begin to understand whats' happening here. Surprisingly, many competitors have ignored this.

So what has Facebook done wrong? Just about everything else.

After being relentlessly pummeled by Facebook-related horror stories, I finally said "enough" and started really digging in to understand what is wrong with Facebook. I've found three major problem areas that need to be solved, but they generally have the root cause of being a secretive, unaccountable company focused primarily on profits and market domination. As a businesperson, I will humbly suggest that there is nothing wrong with that. Honestly, you want to make money and destroy your competition? That's perfectly fine.

Where I draw the line is ethics. Facebook has such a huge impact on the public sector that excluding itself from accountability and acting in complete secrecy has allowed it to become a monster. Ironically, Facebook has been so horrifying, and there have been so few interesting competitors, that people are suffering "compassion fatigue" and when Facebook does something awful, they just ignore it or share it on Facebook. Things that would kill any other company are shrugged off for Facebook.

So I dug in, hard, trying to get to the bottom of this. I've read so many articles about Facebook and their atrocities that I fear I'm becoming numb to them, but that means I can give you a summary and spare you the worst.

Trust

This entire section could simply be about the Cambridge Analytica scandal . Facebook essentially allowed Cambridge Analytica to mine Facebook's data to manipulate the US public opinion in the 2016 presidential election, and British public opinion on the Brexit vote . Or there were the Facebook ads purchased by the Russian government to influence the US election. , even though Facebook originally said there was no evidence for this and stonewalled US Congressional investigations .

Or maybe you don't like Facebook, so you don't have an account. Don't worry, thanks to "shadow profiles", Facebook still probably knows who you are and there's nothing you can do about it.

Or consider the time when Apple had to revoke a Facebook app's permission because Facebook cheated and signed the app with a certificate they weren't allowed to use. . There's no excuse for this, but they cheated for the sole purpose of collecting more data about people, including people as young as 13.

And why not consider the incredibly poor security mistakes made when "protecting" your data? For example, Facebook stored millions of passwords in plain text , one of the most basic of security blunders. Or how about discovering that half a billion user records were publicly available after they were uploaded to Amazon Web Services . Facebook could put an end to that by not letting this information be collected by third-party applications, but that's not going to happen.

As for privacy, as long as Facebook maintains their real-name policy , you will never have strong privacy guarantees. Facebook has tried to mitigate some of the issues with this policy, but their "fix" raised more problems than the policy itself . Facebook is unlikely to address this issue because fake names cause the share price to drop .

The privacy issue hits Facebook again and again and again. For many people, it's their number one reason for wanting to find another GPSN. Zuckerberg has flipped from privacy is no longer a "social norm" , to insisting Facebook would become a "privacy-focused communications platform" . Given Zuckerberg's history, he's more likely to be known as "the boy who cried privacy."

Of course, given all of the scandals, why doesn't the board simply fire Zuckerberg as CEO and move in a new direction? Because they can't. Mark Zuckerberg has a majority stake in Facebook and can fire any director, at any time, without cause. . The board can't lift a finger against Zuckerberg and he knows it. He has complete control over everything Facebook does.

Horror

The Myanmar military used Facebook posts to gain support for the genocide against Muslims in Myanmar . White nationalists have long used Facebook to coordinate activities, but only recently has Facebook started banning those groups . And a Kenyan vigilante group is using Facebook to murder people suspected of being in gangs . These and many other scandals would be enough to destroy many companies, but "scandal fatigue" has definitely set in. However, this isn't where the worst of it is.

Facebook's livestreaming is mostly boring, innocuous, and sometimes touching. And every once in a while its mind-numbing horror will turn your stomach. It's incredibly painful to read about. It includes suicides, parents murdering their children, parents abusing their children, gang rapes, and more. And do not forget the New Zealand mass murder that was livetsreamed. Facebook (read: Zuckerberg) knows this. Despite repeatedly livestreaming horrific crimes, Facebook knows they are making a lot of money and Zuckerberg refuses to do anything about it.

They've been repeatedly asked to add a time-delay to livestreams, or remove them entirely until they can figure out how to stop this. However, they're serious about not delaying livestreams, even if there are brutal crimes involved, but they're taking a huge amount of heat over this. Their response?

“From now on, anyone who violates our most serious policies will be restricted from using Live for set periods of time — for example 30 days — starting on their first offense. For instance, someone who shares a link to a statement from a terrorist group with no context will now be immediately blocked from using Live for a set period of time,” Facebook VP of integrity Guy Rosen wrote.

Read that again. This is the "Vice President of Integrity" explaining that Facebook won't delay the livestreaming of rapes and murders.

Broadcasting

This issue seems relatively minor from a "news" point of view, but it turns out that it's one of Facebook's biggest problems. From a source inside Facebook who cannot be named: "the number one reason people leave Facebook is because their mom joins." An independent study confirmed this. There are several things going on, much of what deals with the difference between online and offline social interactions. Offline, social interactions are face-to-face. We know who we're dealing with and can adjust ourselves accordingly. Online, you're in what I call "broadcast" mode. You don't necessarily know who you're communicating with and nobody wants to tell a dirty joke to their grandmother.

An image of a microphone on a laptop
Social media broadcasts whether you like it or not. Source

Google+ attempted to address the "broadcasting" issue by creating "circles" that you could put people into. If you posted, you could say "just share with these circles" and Grandma would never see that naughty joke you shared. But it was a chore trying to always remember which content you could share with which circles. People join social networks to be social, not to remember which switches they need to flip every time they want to be social.

And the Google+ circles, while trying to fix what you were broadcasting, did nothing to address what you were receiving. The broadcasting problem works both ways.

The Unholy Trifecta: Trust, Horror, and Broadcasting

So why do I focus on these three problems of Facebook? From my reading, they're the three central problems that Facebook cannot overcome (in this analysis, privacy falls under "trust").

If you're going to take on Facebook, you have to address all three of these areas.

This is one of the premier reasons why the various competitors have failed. The software landscape is littered with failed replacements for Microsoft Word because the programmers correctly realized that people only uses a handful or Word's features, but they failed ot notice that everyone uses a different handful.

I've talked to many people about Facebook, read many articles, and have seen that it's the same problem as replacing Microsoft Word. Many people don't care about the broadcasting issue, or the privacy issues, or livestreaming issues, and so on. Trying to fix just one issue ignores large swaths of people who don't care about your issue. In fact, most competitors seem fixated on the privacy issue when it's the broadcasting issue most people care about!

With that in mind, let's look at our contenders.

The Contenders

What follows is not an exhaustive list of contenders, but it's representative of the major contenders and their failures. The key takeaway here is that some contenders definitely could have taken on Facebook, but failed in almost comical ways.

Friendster

Friendster wasn't the first social network, but it's probably the best-known early contender. They launched in 2002 and quickly racked up millions of followers, several competitors, and a $30 million buyout offer from Google. The founder, Jonathan Abrams, turned down that offer and Friendster later failed, slain by MySpace. There were many reasons for this failure, but a critical issue was simply poor performance. As it grew in popularity, its home page could take almost a minute to load.

MySpace

MySpace, once the most popular Web site in the US, spectacularly imploded after Rupert Murdoch purchased them for $580 million. . A large part of this seems to be that Murdoch's NewsCorp just didn't "get" the internet. You move fast and you react to what your users want; post-buyout, MySpace moved slowly and built a bunch of buggy, half-thought out features. Seriously, who spends valuable developer time and money building a virtual karaoke machine? Meanwhile, Facebook was opening up their API so that third-party companies could build the features for Facebook, allowing Facebook to focus on their core products. So again, we see the death of a social network due, in part, to technical limitations which should never have happened.

Orkut

A screenshot of the defunct Orkut Social Network
Orkut in all its glory! Source

Orkut could have become something. It was launched to much fanfare, including this bit from The Register (emphasis mine):

Undetered by the feeding frenzy around the social networking bubble, and rebuffed by Friendster Inc, which it attempted to buy, Google has decided to build one better. Given Friendster's well-documented problems with coping with a large number of users, and Google's world class expertise in scalability, it ought to be more than up to the technical challenge.

Except ... here's what Marissa Mayer, then with Google, had to say about Orkut :

Orkut launched in January of 2004, and as Mayer remembers it, it attracted “several million users in a few days“. This caused the network to slow down to a crawl, Mayer noted. And that, in turn, turned a lot of users away from it — at least in the U.S. “It’s all about speed here,” she said.

Vox has an interesting article about the mess that was Orkut , but it basically amounts to a part-time project, written by Google employee Orkut Büyükkökten, getting co-opted as a Google product, even though it was never designed to scale. What's worse, because it was largely built with Microsoft products, Google engineers deemed it "not scalable" and by the time they finally got around to fixing it, Facebook had been launched and the damage had been done. So again, we see the death of a social network due, in part, to technical limitations which should never have happened.

hi5

Not much to say about hi5 . Launched in 2004, for a few years they were the second or third most popular social network in the US. speeli.com has an interesting summary of why hi5 went nowhere. Amongst other things, you could see who viewed your profile and thus had the incredibly creepy experience of knowing who your cyber-stalkers were. However, their failure was probably due to the fierce competition with MySpace and Facebook, combined with poor earnings and a funding collapse . By 2009, hi5 was focusing heavily on virtual goods for monetization and while Facebook focused on user acquisition around the globe. Facebook, of course, had heavy VC funding, and the hi5 social network never quite seemed as polished. Perhaps if hi5's last funding round hadn't collapsed, things would be different today.

Google Buzz

(Note: we're ignoring "Google Wave" because, despite people talking about it as being the predecessor to Buzz, it was a collaboration tool and not a social network)

Included only for completeness: Google has a habit of launching various social media products, seeing little user engagement, and then dropping them again. In the case of Google Buzz , many users didn't understand what it was for, it publicly displayed who you most chatted and emailed with , and the class action lawsuit probably did little to help. . It lasted only two years before Google put it out of its misery.

Yahoo! 360°

Remember them? Me neither. Nobody really had any idea what it was for, but it was "social" .

Bebo

Bebo really could have been something. At their height they had over 40 million users with strong engagement and sold themselves to AOL for a shocking $850 million! AOL, rather than having a sound vision of where they were going, was trying to use the piles of money they were sitting on to buy something popular and stay relevant. Two years later AOL sold Bebo for $10 million.

Oops.

AOL, somehow, someway, got this bizarro idea that they would pay almost one billion dollars for a small social network and squeeze and squeeze and squeeze money out of the users. But that was never to be. They had a host of internal issues and reportedly never invested heavily in Bebo after the purchase. Bebo had great user engagement and a 3rd-party integration API that worked well; they actually had a chance, but there was no way AOL was going to earn back that money.

Google+

Google Wave lasted two years before Google killed it. Google Buzz lasted two years before Google killed it. Orkut hung on for about a decade before Google killed it.

Gif of Wile. E.  Coyote launching a boulder onto his own head.
Google+ Launch

And then there was Google+ , arriving at a time when many people were already getting sick of Facebook and hoping for a decent alternative. And then it launched.

It's hard to be sure exactly what Google was thinking, but one designer on the project described an epic tale of fear, politics, and siloed development. . Vision? The entire thing was driven by fear of Facebook instead of "what value can we bring to our customers?"

And then there's Steve Yegge's infamous Google rant . He meant it to be private, but didn't understand how to use Google+, so it was posted to the world by accident and lovingly copied, again and again, so that it wouldn't be lost if he was ordered to take it down. It can be summed up with one delightful paragraph:

Google+ is a prime example of our complete failure to understand platforms from the very highest levels of executive leadership (hi Larry, Sergey, Eric, Vic, howdy howdy) down to the very lowest leaf workers (hey yo). We all don't get it. The Golden Rule of platforms is that you Eat Your Own Dogfood. The Google+ platform is a pathetic afterthought. We had no API at all at launch, and last I checked, we had one measly API call. One of the team members marched in and told me about it when they launched, and I asked: "So is it the Stalker API?" She got all glum and said "Yeah." I mean, I was joking, but no... the only API call we offer is to get someone's stream. So I guess the joke was on me.

Building a social network without an API is shooting yourself in the face. This lesson has been learned again and again and again. But not by Google.

Google+ introduced "Circles", allowed you to edit your posts (this competition finally pushed Facebook to add this oft-requested feature), Hangouts, online photo editing, and a few other nifty features, but the lack of an API and a generally "clunky" feel meant that Google+ was off to a bad start, despite picking up millions of users.

And then Google said "hey, let's piss off Youtube fans!" and required a Google+ account to comment on Youtube videos . And yes, people were furious. Not only were they forced to have a Google+ account to use Google services, but the "real name" policy meant that many people, including those who have a genuine need to hide their identity, were locked out. Google finally gave up on these changes a couple of years later . I can't help but wonder who at Google thought that force feeding a social network to their customers was really the fastest way to their hearts.

That being said, there were some nifty innovations led by Google+, but at the end of the day, without a clear vision, Google+ slowly faded away until Google put yet another product out of its misery.

Honorable Mentions

In the history of social networking, there are still a few other sites worth mentioning.

One of the most famous is Diaspora , still in existence as the Diaspora Foundation . They tried to raise $10,000 to compete against Facebook but quickly raised over $200,000 dollars , despite not having written a single line of code. They were known as a "Facebook killer" long before entering that search term in Google turned up murderers. Sadly, their initial release was riddled with security flaws , helping to stall momentum. Another serious issue is that, because it's decentralized, ISIS terrorists have started using it because it's almost impossible to censor them there. Diaspora is asking users to inform on other users who might be terrorists in an attempt to get larger "pods" to take down suspicious accounts.

At the end of the day, end users didn't really find a "decentralized social network" interesting, or they simply didn't understand it. Diaspora was doomed.

Another interesting idea was minds.com , the Libertarian-leaning , crypto-currency backed social network.

Yes, you read that right. Someone thought that a crypto-currency based social network was just what the world needed.

Unsurprisingly, their traffic, never high to begin with, collapsed in the 2018 cryptocurrency crash. Any money you earned through them became instantly worthless. However, they are open source and should get kudos for that, but it's not enough to save them.

If there is one social network I wanted to like, it was MeWe , a "censorship-free" social network with none other than Tim Berners-Lee , the inventor of the Web, as an advisor. But guess what happens to sites like Gab, Voat, and MeWe, when they claim they won't censor? They attract those being censored. I'm sure Berners-Lee isn't very happy with headlines like Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s app MeWe is used by neo-Nazis and perverts :

Sir Tim Berners-Lee's app MeWe included neo-Nazi posts, upskirt “creep ... content, including posts from paedophiles and terrorist supporters.

I went and checked out MeWe myself and found myself in a cesspool of white-nationalists, "WeTheSheeple", MAGA-enthusiasts, "Exposing Satanic World Government" members, and some, I assume, are good people. It's definitely leaning "alt-right" and this Reddit posts summarizes it very well.

Creating A New Social Network

Note: If you have just skipped ahead to this section, this discussion won't make as much sense.

Chris Hughes, in the aforementioned article stating that Facebook must be dismantled, referred to undoing their acquisition of Instagram and Whatsapp. But those are social networks with very specific niches, the SPSNs mentioned earlier. There are still plenty of SPSNs out there. Instead, Facebook killed the GPSNs and, as Hughes stated, gave Zuckerberg a unilateral "ability to monitor, organize and even censor the conversations of two billion people."

Excellence

What's needed isn't to destroy Facebook; that would risk exchanging the devil we know for the devil we don't. Instead, what we need is competition. The various attempts at competition I mentioned earlier failed for various reasons. The reasons that never should have occured are the cases of technical incompetence. Friendster, MySpace (after the NewsCorp acquisition), Orkut (the disastrous launch), Diaspora, and others not mentioned. However, I've been in this industry for far too long for me to suspect that management are going to get better at strategic planning,

or that software "architects" will learn to go by evidence instead of their gut, or software developers will suddenly learn how to write clean, extensible code.

If a major attempt is made to take on Facebook, the attack must be well-thought out and there must be no shortcuts on the path to technical excellence. The investors needs to understand that building value is more important than saving money—none of this idiotic "we can save money by hiring developers for $100 a day!" You don't enter a mature, multi-billion dollar market by winging it.

Trust, Horror, and Broadcasting

As mentioned earlier, many companies have failed to replace Microsoft word because they offered a limited subset of features , ignoring that different users offer different subsets. Many of the would-be competitors did a good job of addressing some of the core issues of trust, horror, and broadcasting, but no one has attempted to address all of them. If you want a GPSN to compete with Facebook, addressing all of these issues up front is going to make life easier, but how do we do that?

Some (Diaspora and minds.com) have attempted to address the trust issue by being open source, but have failed in other ways, such as terribly security issues (Diaspora) or having this weird "cryptocurrency social network" thing that simply wasn't appealing to most (minds.com). Others have attempted to address trust by saying "no censorship" (too many to list!), and wind up being cesspits for racists, conspiracy theorists, and pedophiles.

A horrifying screenshot of the racism on sites that veto censorship
No, we don't need to host this content. And yes, this is a real screenshot.

While I believe strongly in freedom of speech, not every platform needs to allow it. But what speech to censor? By law, some speech must be censored (for example, child pornography), and that censorship varies from country to country. And that raises the question of whether or not the new company should give in to demands from authoritarian countries.

The David to Facebook's Goliath

For the sake of having a name, let's call our theoretical company "Ubuhle ", the Zulu word for "beauty" or "goodness".

Many companies, including powerhouses like Google, have tried and failed to take on Facebook. What we need is something radically different, addressing all of the issues above. However, unlike Facebook's relentless drive for profits and dominance, Ubuhle would be focused on the needs of its users. If a social network can be thought of as a public service, the company should act in the interests of the public, not shareholders, or Zuckerberg. Part of that difference would be creating Ubuhle as a B Corporation. B Corporations are different.

Certified B Corporations are a new kind of business that balances purpose and profit. They are legally required to consider the impact of their decisions on their workers, customers, suppliers, community, and the environment. This is a community of leaders, driving a global movement of people using business as a force for good.

B Corporations include Ben & Jerry's, Amalgamated Bank, Kickstarter, and thousands more. You can make a profit and guard your soul at the same time.

Next, let's address the trifecta.

Building Trust

Open Source

Let's just get this out of the way right now: Ubuhle's software should be open source. There are many successful open source companies and Ubuhle's strength would be the service and trust it provides, not just the code. When the code is open source, people can look to see if we're building shadow profiles, or inappropriately mining data, or using lax security practices.

Open Business

Next: open business. Facebook has taken in a lot of money from questionable sources, such as Cambridge Analytica and Russia advertising propaganda campaigns targeting US voters. Ubuhle should have a page where users can search for all income sources, along with their details. Instead of shrouding everything in secrecy, let it be out in the open. The default position of Ubuhle is that people have a right to know this information.

No "real names" Policy

Next: use any name you want. While Ubuhle would certainly like to see real names because it's easier for people to connect, in reality, many people have excellent reasons to not use their real names. Imagine if someone is being stalked by an ex and doesn't want to be found. Imagine if someone from Iran is gay and doesn't want to be executed. Imagine if someone just doesn't think other people need to know their real name. Imagine tons of celebrities who, technically, can't use Facebook because their stage name doesn't match their real name. Heck, I'm better known as "Ovid" in much of the software world, but I can't use that on Facebook. And trying to enforce a "real name" policy is simply fraught with error. Facebook has banned many people for actually using their real names .

Community Engagement

When Ubuhle makes major business decisions, the decisions, and the reasons for them, should be shared with the public immediately. Comments should be allowed and Ubuhle should directly engage with its customers. There should be no shadowy cabal of management making secret decisions controlling the communications of people.

Eliminating Horror

This one is easy: no livestreaming unless we can figure out a way to make it safe. But we can go beyond that. Community engagement would be necessary to find an appropriate way to decide what content is acceptable. Certainly we don't need to show the exploitation of children. And while expressing support for neo-Nazis may be legal in most countries, Ubuhle doesn't have a requirement to host that content. But only by working with the community can we navigate what are, to be honest, very difficult waters. Free speech advocates may be horrified by suppressing holocaust denial posts, while others may be horrified if Ubuhle allows non-pornographic nudity. You can't win, but you can compromise.

Horror means different things to different people: livestreaming rapes and murders qualify, but so does promoting terrorism, racism, and other forms of hate speech. How would Ubuhle handle that? How would Ubuhle support free speech but provide a "safe" environment?

The answer, curiously, may lie in fixing the "broadcasting" problem.

Controlled Broadcasting

Nobody wants to tell their grandma a dirty joke. That's why Google+ created circles: you controlled what you shared and with whom. But always having to remember select the circles for posts kind of kills the whole "I just want to share" aspect of being social. Sure, when I'm sitting in front of grandma, I watch my tongue. But if I'm out with friends, I don't. On Facebook, you don't know if grandma is listening to what you're telling your friends and many people leave Facebook as a result.

We can fix this with content tagging and you decide the filtering.

A default Ubuhle filter that all new users might get is "no nudity", "no violence", and "no heavily downvoted posts." Maybe you decide to go one further and remove politics and religion. Maybe someone else wants the politics and not the religion. Someone else might create a custom filter to skip all posts containing "Game of Thrones" and "GoT", hoping to avoid spoilers.

With this approach, you control what you see, not Ubuhle. While certain content would still need to be banned (child-pornography), you choose your experience. This filter could be applied to all content. With the default Ubuhle filter, assuming white-supremacist groups are heavily downvoted,

you'd never see them when scrolling through groups.

That's what you read, but what about what you write?

Imagine that I've set up three groups:

  1. Family
  2. School friends
  3. Close friends

My school friends are mostly from Texas and while they're a bunch of great people, it's fair to say that we find each other's political views polarizing. I could create a custom filter just for that group, which excludes anything political I may write. Trust me, they would appreciate that.

What if someone's in more than one group? The most restrictive filters would apply, unless you explicitly tag someone.

But how do we actually tag the content? There are a number of ways to do this, but one way might be ...

AI Categorization Pipeline

For a first pass, there are quite a few open source AI solutions which can categorize text, image, and video content. New content would shoot through a pipeline of categorizers which would tag content, but not filter it (aside from anything illegal). Would it be perfect? No, you'd still get the occassional unwanted content. Would it be better than blasting you with any and all content that you may not want? Absolutely. And unlike Facebook's human moderators , the AI-Pipeline would suffer no PTSD, would not need frequent breaks from work, would not need to go home to sleep, and would be very unlikely to consider a class action lawsuit against its employer.

As an added bonus, a quick Fermi estimate suggests that one powerful box running non-stop could replace 100 human moderators. Even being off by an order of magnitude, that's a nice financial savings.

Profit?

So how do you make money off of this? Many of the competitors appear to have avoided ads. I think that was a huge mistake. People aren't idiots and they know that a social network needs to make money. Advertising has been around since before recorded history, the first TV ads appeared in 1941 , and Nielsen has been doing targeted advertising since the 1930s . However, in the internet era, that targeted advertising is becoming invasive, with ads following us from site to site, to our phones back to our desktops.

And it gets worse. Though I doubt this was intentional on Facebook's part, they've been charged with violating the Fair Housing Act because whether or not you could view an ad for housing depended on your race or your skin color. Facebook managed to settle the issue by ensuring that anyone "placing housing, job, or credit ads will not be able to target users by age, gender, or zip code." . But why does Facebook get to decide that?

Ubuhle should have advertising, with crystal-clear controls over what information you do and do not wish to share with advertisers.

You can even opt out of the advertising entirely. That's what trust is all about.

But why allow advertising at all? For the final quarter of 2018, Facebook‘s ad revenue was $16.6 billion dollars. , with 93% of that coming from mobile advertising.

An advertisement for cartoon-emojis being sold by mewe.com
I'm unsure how they'll earn $16.6 billion in revenue selling emojis.

Meanwhile, Tim Berners-Lee's offering, MeWe, doesn't allow ads but is selling cartoon icon sets at $4.99 each. You do the math.

And let's be honest: well-done ads can be brilliant.

There are plenty of other ways to earn money, but advertising is the key. What would set Ubuhle apart is giving users total control over that advertising.

And if the user wants to use an ad blockers? That's fine. there is no need to waste time or money on an adblocking arms race. .

Can It Happen?

Yes, it can. Frankly, we would love to do it , but we have to be realistic. This would be a long-term, cash-intensive project. Between our client work and building Tau Station , our free narrative RPG, we are not in a position to do this without major funding. If we don't do this, someone should. Hence, putting this information out there.

But as Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes made clear in this Time to Break up Facebook article:

...would-be competitors can’t raise the money to take on Facebook. Investors realize that if a company gets traction, Facebook will copy its innovations, shut it down or acquire it for a relatively modest sum. So despite an extended economic expansion, increasing interest in high-tech start-ups, an explosion of venture capital and growing public distaste for Facebook, no major social networking company has been founded since the fall of 2011.

Investors are afraid. None of the competition has really done anything particularly different from Facebook, aside from no advertising, no censorship, and no chance. Ubuhle would be establishing a pact with its customers: you get full control and, in exchange, we work with you to build a community of trust.

Building the business would start with targeting the valuable 12 to 35 year old demographic that‘s leaving Facebook . It would take a serious marketing campaign, probably combined with an attempt to swing "influencers" over to the new GPSN.

Leveraging network effects will also be key. Ubuhle would need a strong API, preferably one that is similar to the Facebook API

to accomodate those developers already familiar with Facebook. Being able to add their apps to Ubuhle would help it grow with less effort. Widgets will also be a key part of this. Having tools on your web site such as "Login with Ubuhle", "Share on Ubuhle", "Ubuhle profile badges", and so on.

And, of course, there's the question of scale. There's a lot I could say on this topic, but that's turning to the technical side instead of the business side, so that's a different conversation. However, it needs to be well-planned because catching bugs in the design phase is one of the best ways to keep costs down .

None of this is cheap, but the long-term value is what‘s imporant, not the development costs.. However, it involves a commitment of years to have the chance to offer solid competition to Facebook and no one wants to take them on. But creating competition to Facebook is important, so this is offered as a chance to get discussion going. I spent weeks digging through information to come up with all of this and at times, it was unpleasant work (the livestreaming research particularly turned my stomach). But we need this. Sooner or later, someone's going to take Facebook down. Sooner is better; even the co-founders agree.

Update: One of the engineers who worked on Google+ offers some great insight as to why it failed.


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Copyright © 2018-2019 by Curtis "Ovid" Poe.