Big Brother is watching. This is the ominous note that strikes me whenever I think about George Orwell’s amazing book. It makes sense in a senseless world. We are aware of our governments watching us. But I’m not going to talk about intrusive governments. I’m going to talk about something else. Ever since I joined ADN, I’ve been part of a growing debate over privacy concerns regarding Facebook and developer concerns over a now well-locked down Twitter API. I’ve read about Facebook’s new Graph Search, I’ve read about Twitter’s fight with Instagram and I’ve read about Dunbar’s number. But today, when I saw a link about Twitter being the fastest growing global social platform, is when I realized where all of this is going.
Many months ago, I read an interesting article on Quartz about how Facebook is looking to Africa for its next Billion users. The method is simple – provide Facebook access for free via SMS. In this classic move, people get addicted to the free social network and Facebook gets marketable user data on a Billion more. This despite the fact that we’ve well established that Facebook isn’t what it’s all pegged to be – a way to connect with people. Then I saw this new post about Twitter today and I realized where this is all going. Those of you who’ve read 1984 will know that in the book there are three main countries, each too large to be defeated by the other two, even if they try to combine forces, which never really happens because of ever-changing alliances. All this while, the common people of each State are fed misinformation and trained to accept it as fact. This is an Oligarchical system that cannot be broken. There is a perpetual war and all available resources are concentrated towards it, sacrificed from availability to common man with the hope that it’ll help in the war effort. But the most important facet? Everyone is watched.
Sounds like anything you know? Let me draw the parallels – Facebook and Twitter are the two giants right now. The search goes on for the third. Yet, this is an Oligarchy. No government can claim that either of these networks are big enough to have a monopoly and must be broken down. Efforts to do so bear statements that each member of these networks is there by choice and is free to discontinue use of the service at any point in time and to join another service. Thus, these networks, leave for involuntary decay, are not going anywhere. Often, whenever the privacy issue resurfaces on Facebook, various rumors and false messages are circulated. The latest of them was when swathes of my friends posted on their walls that since Facebook is a public company, they are declaring that their personal information is not to be used by any shareholders of the company. This was a major farce and lulled people into believing that doing so would save their privacy. What they should have done was to go and vote in the Facebook Governance Vote. This was the last farce in Facebook’s claim that they are “for the users”. Facebook claimed that only a small percentage of users voted (600,000 out of a Billion users voted) and that this was no longer an effective means of deciding on issues. The solution? Facebook shut down the voting system. Twitter is not far behind. The once organically growing network did not ask anyone’s opinions before dictatorially locking down the API, shutting down what they could in the Instagram app (twitter removed the ability to search for twitter friends in Instagram) and forcing most heavy users back to their official apps, so that they could push advertisements. Finally, it comes to the arsenal. Facebook bought Instagram and shut down its twitter embeds, shutdown the Face.com API soon after buying them out, bought out Glancee, Gowalla and others. Twitter bought Posterous, TweetDeck, Summify, BackType and others to supposedly improve their services, move into new space, acquire more users or for analytics. This is all done so that the end users doesn’t meander from the base platform and more people are attracted to them. But who’s the loser in this? The end users who lose their data when the app or service shuts down. As I’ve said before, there’s no point in that glorious “Export Data” option that most platforms are totting nowadays because you have nowhere to put that data. Barely any platform tots an “Import data from *other* social network” and even then, most of the metadata is lost and most users are not good enough at programming to make their own import tools. Even if you do export your data, they keep a copy. So your online persona, everything you’ve done so far, is still theirs.
Oh, and everyone is watched and revolutionaries are squashed. Twitter owns a copy of your tweets. Facebook owns your posts and everyone’s data is stored, analysed, collated and sold. You get ads based on your latest tweet, your latest picture and your latest purchase. There’s no escaping that. Unless, of course, you have AdBlock Pro installed in your browser. Then, at least, you don’t have to see these insane violations of your privacy. What about the revolutionaries? Well, one of the best examples is Dalton Caldwell who started out building a platform with and API that developers could build apps and services off of. He wanted to seriously build for Facebook but seeing that his ideas competed with the Facebook App Center, he was forced into a zero-sum game. He could either put out his company and product or get out of the ecosystem. He did the latter and went on to build App.net which is teeming with developers and aiming just to serve its users, who pay for the service.
No one knows who the third State of social networking is. Apple and Google have often tried and failed miserably in building out social platforms (Ping, Game Center/Jaiku, Latitude, Wave, Buzz, Google+). WordPress and Tumblr are too attached to the blogging platform concept to change radically into massive social networks (which is a good thing). Some standalone products bought by other companies survive, (Skype by MS, YouTube by Google, Instagram by Facebook) but not because they are inherently social but because they are of value in some other way. Amazon is nowhere near a social network (again, so glad for that). App.net is still a fledgling as compared to these massive networks. Most small social apps and services, specially those funded by VCs have two destinies – either not gain enough traction and get shut down or gain bare minimum traction and look to get bought by one of the big guys.
Why does all of this matter? It matters because we spend too much of our lives online. We, the end users, don’t log out of Facebook before going to shop on Amazon and we tweet about everything from our morning coffee to our political leaning. We put all that effort into building our online lives and when the product shuts down or the company changes hands, we just go with the flow to the next social network instead of demanding an answer (which we can’t because, hey, the service was free!). It matters because we’re citizens of these online States that are at continual war. A war in which they will buy every small company that users show interest in, will use your data more aggressively and blatantly when their bottom line needs to be fed and will not be afraid to release more tools for their advertisers than for their users, simply because their true customer is the former. It matters because this trend of over-sharing our lives is not going away because we’ve come to accept it as who we are. Our offline identities, earlier so different from our online ones are taking the shape of the latter. It matters because once the third big social network is formed, there will be no where on the Internet that will be free. There will be no website not tracked, no login not stored, no purchase not analysed. But we don’t need that last big network to get to that. We are already in 1984 and Big Brother is watching.