Four features that would tame Facebook

Even in the weakest and most conflictive moment of its history, Facebook still seems inescapable. It's impossible to leave, as Sarah Jeong detailed last week, and it seems even harder to fix. Facebook has launched products such as Clear History to address complaints about data privacy and new advertising transparency measures to deal with influence campaigns. But until now, nobody has suggested anything that makes it easier to leave Facebook or reduce its role in our lives. If your complaint is that Facebook is simply too powerful, the company has done very little to reassure you.

It does not have to be that way. The Facebook domain is the result of specific product options, and there are other products that undo those options. We are so used to platforms that act to strengthen their own power that it is unthinkable that they act otherwise. But from the perspective of the product, the features are simple, extracted from open protocols such as email, RSS and the web itself. If Facebook followed his example, it would become less powerful, safer, but also less invasive and premonitory, a more friendly presence in the online space.

I'm not optimistic that Facebook offers any of these features, although you never know. Beyond that, we do not have clear legal mechanisms to force Facebook into this way of doing business, outside of a significant political change in the Department of Justice or the Federal Trade Commission. It would mean treating Facebook more as a utility than as a business, and probably vaporizing billions in value for shareholders along the way. Even then, this would not solve all the problems with Facebook, leaving serious complaints about information diets and data privacy more or less intact.

But the hardest problem-the oppressive stickiness of Facebook itself-would be surprisingly simple to solve. This is what it would take:

Dummy Profiles

One of the biggest problems when leaving Facebook is the possibility that someone could search for it and not find anything there. At the same time, if you stop using Facebook but leave your profile active, there is no easy way to tell passers-by that you no longer verify the profile. There is no easy way out, and it's hard to make a clean break.

This would be easy to fix. When a user leaves Facebook, give them the option of displaying a simple page to inform visitors that they have left and where else they can be reached, similar to the Netflix page "we do not have this movie". Facebook is a massive directory of people, and a person should be able to leave the product without leaving the directory. In a secondary social network like LinkedIn, fictitious profiles can seem like garbage. But it's really weird that someone is not on Facebook, and it usually means that they went on purpose.

Somehow, Facebook is already doing this. If I deleted my profile tomorrow, the Facebook database will still keep a record of my existence and of my friends, if only because I need to categorize the contact data of people who know me. These are the infamous Profiles of shadows, but they are only dark because they are not visible to users. If you make them visible, the entire network will start to look a little more friendly and a little more transparent.

Forwarding messages

More common than closing your Facebook account is simply abandoning it, avoiding the application for months. But if you stay away for a long time, you will return to the digital equivalent of a stack of unopened emails: direct messages you never saw, invitations you never received and everything else that happened on Facebook while you were absent. Due to the closed nature of Facebook, there is no solid way to see those messages without logging in, which is a big part of what makes us come back.

It would be easy to change that. Think of it as an email: send everything that reaches my Facebook account in a weekly email or in my Peach inbox or anywhere else I choose. This would work very differently from current "billing" emails, which simply say "someone sent you a message on Facebook" that asks you to log in to see more. The point here is a complete breakthrough, which allows you to see all the information that is sent to you through Facebook without you logging in to Facebook.

Freelance apps for publishing

Facebook has a great network, but the real tools to publish are not particularly useful. Someone else could probably do better, especially if they were building something that was published on multiple networks at once. A third-party application also allows you to post something on your Facebook without being dragged to the other parts of the site. There are many ways to do it in other services, either something as simple as an IFTTT tag or involved as the short-duration Engage application of Twitter . Even camera apps have a version of this, which allows you to send photos to Facebook, even if you do not have the application on your phone. But more advanced applications like this are outdated in the world of startups, in part because there is no way to prevent platforms from killing them. (Pray for Tweetbot.)

It's hard to say what is the best way to protect developers here, particularly because blocking abusive applications is an important part of the broader fight against online fraud and abuse. But giving developers a little more protection could have a powerful effect on the broader ecosystem, opening the door to multi-network distribution and a more federated version of social networks in general. You can see versions of this in distributed applications like Mastodon, where a single client can publish multiple instances at once. I would begin to see more competition among customers and much less blocking within networks. Everyone wins, except maybe Zuck.

Export news feed data

Once you can send things to your Facebook, the next question is how to get things out. Direct messages are simple to follow, but to use Sarah's example, that will not tell you that your friend is getting married. That information lives in News Feed, and News Feed is more complicated. It is the core product of Facebook, and the most difficult to untangle. The messages you see there depend so much on the algorithms that it would be difficult to export them. You could not even ask for a unique version of what the News Feed would show you at any given time. It is simply too fluid.

But, what if you could export certain aspects of the News Feed, such as the life events of all your friends or all the updates of specific groups? Even if we can not ask for a perfect facsimile of News Feed, we can still play with the components. You could also consider it a real-time version of the same data export ordered by the GDPR, which requires portability as a flow instead of a single piece of data. The transmission could be personal messages from friends or commonly shared news articles, anything that allows third-party developers to deepen and create something new. The objective here is not only to open the door to developers and Facebook's best hacks (although we would also get it), but to create a certain distance between the Facebook tools and the data in your network so that the tools have value beyond getting you can use Facebook more


It is difficult to know how to think about this open version of Facebook. It can be just a fantasy, a series of features that the company probably will not implement, which generates a final objective that is actively opposed. Facebook does not want to become a silly tube or a single component of a broader flowering of decentralized social networks. You are making enough money just for being Facebook.

But that impenetrable version of Facebook has become oppressive, which has caused real fears about the power of monopoly and a new impulse to regulation. We still do not know how much those efforts will threaten Facebook, but they will not disappear. So far, the biggest problem for reformers has been that we just can not imagine what a domesticated Facebook would look like. Privacy and advertising regulations seem to cut the edges, without posing a real threat to the network. The fantasies of nationalization seem impractical. It is difficult to imagine that any of the two routes have a significant impact on social networks.

In his opening speech at F8, Mark Zuckerberg spoke about how Facebook exists to connect people, a theme that has come back again and again through several Facebook crises. "I think we need to design technology to bring people together," said Zuckerberg, giving the closest Facebook has to a mission statement. "And I think that's not going to happen on its own." But to really be up to that will mean backing away from Facebook's relentless drive towards blocking the platform. It's time for Facebook to put your money where your mouth is.

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