Mark Zuckerberg’s letter to shareholders included in Facebook’s IPO filing contains a pretty bold vision for Facebook to not just connect people and enable them to share, but to fundamentally restructure the way that the world works:
By helping people form these connections, we hope to rewire the way people spread and consume information. We think the world’s information infrastructure should resemble the social graph — a network built from the bottom up or peer-to-peer, rather than the monolithic, top-down structure that has existed to date. We also believe that giving people control over what they share is a fundamental principle of this rewiring.
We have already helped more than 800 million people map out more than 100 billion connections so far, and our goal is to help this rewiring accelerate. [emphasis added]
That sounds pretty lofty, but if you recognize that Facebook provides a social networking service that hundreds of millions of people use — but forget for a moment that it’s Facebook — it’s quite a bold “social mission.” And there are many examples of how the service has been used as a key tool in affecting change on everything from opposition to the Canadian DMCA to the Arab Spring. There’s no doubt that the service makes it easier for people to organize in a more bottom-up way.
But, once you remember that it’s Facebook we’re talking about, the vision sounds more problematic. Could Facebook ever truly bring about a peer-to-peer, bottom-up network? The notion seems to be an inherent contradiction to Facebook’s architecture — as a centralized, proprietary, walled garden social networking service. Facebook may enable a more bottom-up structure, but it’s a bit disingenuous for Zuckerberg to decry a monolithic, top-down structure when Facebook inserts itself as the new intermediary and gatekeeper. As a centralized, proprietary, walled garden service, Facebook is a single point for attacks, control, and surveillance, never mind controversial policies or privacy concerns. Facebook may enable a more bottom-up and peer-to-peer network compared to many things that came before, but there is something fundamentally at odds with a truly distributed solution at the core of its architecture and its DNA.
To realize the full potential of bottom-up, peer-to-peer social networking infrastructure, we need autonomous, distributed, and free network services — the sort of vision that StatusNet/Identi.ca or Diaspora have tried to bring about. Rewiring the world to create a more bottom-up, peer-to-peer network is a bold vision for Zuckerberg to put forth — and one that Facebook has advanced in many ways — yet it’s fundamentally at odds with the reality of Facebook as a centralized and proprietary walled garden.