Or what would happen if Facebook went GPL
In thesis no. 93 The Cluetrain Manifesto claims :
We’re both inside companies and outside them. The boundaries that separate our conversations look like the Berlin Wall today, but they’re really just an annoyance. We know they’re coming down. We’re going to work from both sides to take them down.
I agree. I experience these annoyances on a daily basis. Sometimes I have to really constrain myself not to let go of my temper, because I feel that our insights in many ways far precede our abilities to apply these to practical use. For instance, I cannot understand that while I do 95% of my banking via the internet, most banks do not put 95% of their ressources to work to give me as a customer the best possible online banking experience. Even less would probably do. If they just put 80% behind it, that would probably suffice. But they don’t. I am also annoyed when I have to communicate with my daughter’s doctor via an online form which permits only a limited amount of characters, largely because they do not trust email as a means of communication. In fact, I am always annoyed when people who presumably wants to communicate with me, don’t let me communicate back on equal terms. I find that arrogant. As far as possible I resist their attempts to control the way in which I should communicate with them.
The rooms in which we speak
Architectures are important. They are the ways we construct the rooms in which we speak. The “conversations” of The Cluetrain Manifesto take place within the framework of such architectures. They have names such as Facebook, Twitter and Google. Other such architectures are called things like WordPress, Joomla, MediaWiki, Firefox, RSS and GNU/Linux. They have a tremendous impact on the ways we communicate online, on the ways in which we filter our incoming information streams, and on the ways we enable new connections and enable new ideas to reach others, and enable their ideas to reach us. As important as architecture is, so more important is ownership : that we claim ownership to the tools we use. That we claim ownership to the channels and the walls that decide who will learn to know us, who will receive our message, and who will be filtered out, who will not. We decide what walls are torn down and what are built. With the web and simple tools we can, and we do.
Many of the software architectures that we employ, from the webserver and webscripting functionality of Apache and PHP to the popular self-publishing power of tools such as WordPress, are free software. I.e. built and easily adaptable by anyone who wants to adapt them for particular purposes.
Other architectures are walled gardens, maintained by organizations and companies, who are not concerned about the choice of their customers. While companies such as Facebook, Twitter and Google offer greatly useful applications to their customers, their services impose limits on their use. In short, they choose to remain in control. They choose not to release the source code. Not to let their users adapt the tools they’re offering to their particular purpose.
If a company such as Facebook or Twitter goes bankrupt, users will lose their data – no compensation, no anything. There’s no obvious way to retrieve data from these services, and since the code is not free, one can’t write tools to retrieve those data by oneself. While most of these services offer useful and advanced interfaces so that programmers can access their data from the outside, the service stays in control. You can’t obtain access to data they don’t want you to obtain access to. Facebook ultimately decides who they like to write applications for “their” platform. Twitter abolishes user accounts at their whim, because ultimately Twitter decides. Ultimately, Google decides to pull the plug on a GMail or YouTube account, on grounds they choose, not their customers.
These walls of proprietary ownership are the Berlin walls of today. We meet them everywhere, when we are annoyed we can’t do certain things with the tools we use. When we communicate within the confines of architectures that we do not own and do not feel comfortable with, because they disallow us to be ourselves. In the worst case, we hit them head on when we find that our account on some service has been abolished unfairly, with nothing we can say to get our data back. When a service ceases to be in business, a product ceases to be supported, or a new company policy is enforced in spite of what we feel about it.
So how are these walls going to come crumbling down?
As I do here and have often argued, the only way we can operate freely in our online environments is if and when we ourselves are able to create, adapt, control and empower the architectures that we employ. We need our software and online services to be as easily adaptable as any article on Wikipedia. Wikipedia is enabled by the clever use of a particular architecture in combination with a copyright in reverse known as “copyleft”. The GNU Free Documentation License (GFDL) license ensures that every contribution to Wikipedia’s articles can be freely adapted and re-distributed by others.
Until now, free software have also relied on copyright. Similar to Wikipedia’s license, the General Public License (GPL) which is commonly used for most free software projects ensures that the code stays open and can be manipulated by anyone, no matter who distributes or sells it.
But free software need not depend on copyright. The greatest barrier to the spread of free software is that so many do not understand why it is important. Too many business executives cannot see, that it is as beneficial to them as to their customers, that they facilitate their customers’ ability to change and adapt the code. Too many organizations do not understand that releasing their source code opens up new, decentralized, flexible and less costly ways to organize their activities. And too many internet users (myself included) are too convenient with their habitual uses of proprietary online tools to question deeply and realize what’s at stake. We also find time to be a scarce good, since we also have to work to pay our bills – often inside companies led by execs who don’t “get it”.
How things look from the inside
The free software movement is “working on the outside” to bring down these walls. But on the inside, every Facebook, Google and Twitter employee is also an internet user and customer. They are people who talk using these same tools, they have other lives, they quit and start their own businesses, in short they engage in conversations where they go (or are allowed to go, by their companies). What limitations in ownership are put in place by their companies also limit their ability to deliver the best possible product, the best possible service and the best way to help solve their customer’s problems. They are equally annoyed by the corporate walls put in place beyond their control.
There are two great problems which faces the walled corporations, now and in the future :
1. They will increasingly encounter free architectures and services, which may yet perform poorly, but have much greater potential to outgrow and outperform their proprietary competitors.
2. As clever candidates everywhere discover their own ability to build and employ free architectures of their own choosing and flavour and adapt them to suit their own particular purposes, companies will find it increasingly harder to find qualified candidates to fill positions. What’s attractive in working under the command of a boss, if you can work for yourself? What’s the attraction in working for a company, whose business model is not adaptable to the open environments spreading on the web?
What if Facebook went GPL?
In closing, let me speculate aloud to show an example of the business landscape I believe will replace the walled gardens of today’s corporate environment. Among many online applications, Facebook is probably the service with which I have the most problematic relationship. There’s no doubt in my mind that Facebook does something very well : it helps facilitate connections and conversations. It helps me get in touch and stay in touch with family, friends and business contacts who wouldn’t otherwise read my blog or relate to me via other online tools. It works really great for friends you don’t see a lot on a daily basis, but still want to stay in touch with. But for all it’s merits, I hate the fact that I can’t easily search and access data in Facebook. I dislike that I can’t extract the information I need with RSS from my Facebook archives, and that I cannot play even further with the category layers, to adapt the service even further to suit my needs.
Let’s imagine that Facebook decides to go open source. Facebook releases it’s source code and invites developers to join in and contribute to the code. They still are leading the development of the core Facebook application, but also offer anyone a downloadable package, which can be freely modified and redistributed. Anyone is free to fork Facebook and set up a rival site.
What would happen then?
First, we’d fix everything that is wrong with it. We’d add RSS feeds to all the places where we’d like RSS feeds. We’d work to make what’s going on transparent, so that we could learn from it. And we’d make those changes publically available to anyone, who’d like to take a look and use them for their own purposes.
But what I think makes Facebook really brilliant as a free software package is the way it can adopt external applications within itself. Facebook as a general purpose communications platform is great and extremely adaptable. This makes it well suited as a platform for almost any corporate website. Most companies need to enable conversations across the organization, with suppliers, customers, investors, and everyone else slightly related to the company. The fact that most companies’ employees already spend a good deal of time using Facebook during work hours shouldn’t lead to abolishing and blocking Facebook from office computers, but should rather be seen as an encouragement to take this brilliant tool and give it a form of their own choosing. If Facebook was released under GPL, that would indeed be a viable option.
Adopting Facebook as a corporate platform would not only allow employees and customers to communicate on equal footing, it would also allow them to create applications for the platform, which would help adapt the package in very particular, employee- and customer-centric ways to suit the company’s purposes. That the package already has proven so scalable on a global level is a testament to it’s robustness in even the most trying of corporate environments.
But even if Facebook is not released under GPL, we’re already well on our way to build, use and sustain software like this, and many businesses do build their own social networking architectures. In fact, many CMS packages which are free software already implement features which mirror the successful features of Facebook and other social networking services. For WordPress, we already have BuddyPress, a prebundled collection of plugins which convert a WordPress installation to a fullblown social networking site.
But businesses and developers will continue to get it wrong, if they do not offer their employees, members and customers the same freedoms by releasing their source code, as they had when they chose to base their solution on free software.
In the long term, the question is, if Facebook and other proprietary businesses will still have a business model, if they do not give up control and release their code? If they do not enable the free adaptability of their software, chances are, with time, we’ll just build our own.
This post is part of the Cluetrain Manifesto 10-year Anniversary Blogging Event organized by Keith McArthur, in which 95 bloggers all write today about one of the 95 theses put forth by The Cluetrain Manifesto 10 years ago.