Facebook's Added Transparency

The Blog of Tom Webster

  2010-10-06 16:51:00 PDT

Today Facebook has announced two major changes that directly combat issues that power users of the site have had since the website’s inception:

  1. The ability to export your data.
  2. The ability organize friends into groups.

The most important of these is the ability to export user data. Every comment, picture, post, and status update, rolled into a ZIP file, given directly to the user. This is a game-changer. Facebook can no longer be called a walled garden. With the ability to take your data elsewhere, users don’t have to feel “stuck” on Facebook. Want to leave and take your data elsewhere? Go to a social network that will allow you to upload your Facebook ZIP file. Just like that, you’ve left Facebook for (hopefully) greener pastures. Personally, I’ll feel safer using Facebook, now that I know my data isn’t forever locked away in the vaults. Facebook was one of the largest bastions of data lock-in, and now that they’ve changed, they’ve set an example that will (and should) be followed throughout the tech community.

While not as important as being able to leave, Facebook has also introduced a new Groups feature. Groups isn’t just a resurrected “Friend Lists”, groups will fundamentally change the way Facebook will operate. What if you want to post a message to your college drinking gang, but leave your family out of it? Before, it was convoluted. Creating the list, managing it, sending a message to the list. Friend lists never really felt like an A-List feature of Facebook. If groups work like they should, this will bring Facebook much closer to allowing users to separate their social networking actions to specific aspects of their lives. Want to create a Thanksgiving Dinner event for just your Family Group without your creepy Facebook-stalker seeing? Go right ahead. Like the title of the GigaOM article: New Facebook Groups Encourage Private Interactions. And it’s true.

But what does this mean for startup projects like Diaspora? Hopefully not too much. The difference between Diaspora and Facebook is Diaspora is still an open project (albeit a very young one) and still has a chance of doing these things better than Facebook. Diaspora was created with the ideas of data-export and social-aspects from the very beginning, Facebook was not. What may very well happen, though, is drive much-needed developers away from the project, simply because they don’t see the need for it anymore. Only time will tell on this last point.

In the tech world, today’s events seem like part of a recent trend: Once super-closed companies are starting to tear down their walls. With Apple allowing a Google Voice and Facebook letting users take their ball and go home, it seems that walled gardens are finally starting to realize that open is not only better, but more profitable as well. At-ease users are happy users.