Facebook is a thinly veiled economic machine that turns your online identity into a monetizable commodity. We sell our digital souls for the privilege of playing in a garden walled by banner ads, on paths carefully planned by product managers in Palo Alto. We may not look beyond the walls, and we are encouraged to bring our friends in to play. The same pattern has been repeated time and again since the beginning of the Internet.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The technology exists for us to control our online personal information, to dictate to whom and how much our identities will be revealed, while still participating in the network at large. You should have control of your online identity and personal information. It should be your right as a digital citizen. The next generation of social networking sites can provide that control, using simple tools that we have used for years.
Start with a personal website. Next, place all of your personal information into a database, including a list of links to friends’ sites. A set of privileges is given to each friend in order to restrict their access to your information, perhaps assigned using groups, such as ‘colleagues’, or ‘family’.
You and each of your friends have a security key associated with your identity. That key uniquely identifies you, and allows for secure encrypted communication that can be read by you, and only you (The system for creating and managing those keys is already in place; it is called Public Key Infrastructure, and it is available as free software).
Now for the piece that makes this software ‘like Facebook’. You have a personal homepage on your website, one that may look like Facebook, or Myspace, LinkedIn; any social network you desire. When you visit your personal site your web browser will call all of your friend’s sites, ask for some of their personal information, and display that information on your page in the format you want. Alternatively, you may visit their sites directly to see their information in the format they desire; the choice is up to you. They know who is asking for the information because of the security key, and they are free to show you as much or as little information as they want.
There are still opportunities to make money in the new social network landscape. Facebook can still exist, but the walls will have disappeared. Advertising supported hosting of personal profiles as Facebook does is still possible, but not required in order to participate in your friends’ social networks. Opportunities exist for searching the large network of people beyond your first-degree contacts. LinkedIn would become such a service, allowing you to submit a profile to their database in return for searching across the tens of thousands of people in your third-degree network. Selling your personal data on a controlled basis becomes feasible: you may opt to exchange your detailed personal and demographic information (age, income, etc.) to an information broker in for a monetary reward, or in exchange for one-to-one advertising that is actually relevant.
I believe that a network of personal information sites connected under the control of its users would constitute a new phase in the Internet’s development, opening doors to applications and utility as yet unseen. I hope it is only a matter of ‘when’ it will happen, and not a question of ‘if’.