Tuesday, 23 October 2012

The better FACEBOOK

With over 900 million users, at least one of whom logs on every second of every day, Facebook has become the most popular social networking site of this era. With so many users, there are bound to be waves of protest against any changes or new features, especially the questionable data protection policies that seem to keep changing.
                          This is the negative side of Facebook, and there are several other social networks offering to make things much better in order to set themselves apart and grab any available chance to establish themselves against such a huge incumbent market leader. One such service,
                          Diaspora, hit the news in May 2010 after a Facebook scandal relating to privacy. At that time, advertising agencies had been allowed to use the personal data of many Facebook members without being questioned. A few user profiles also became publicly visible due to a programming error. Diaspora initially billed itself as a data-protection-friendly alternative to Facebook got a lot of attention after this. Using Kickstarter to raise capital via the Web, the team raised US$ 200,000—twenty times their original target. There wasn’t even a single line of code written at that point, but the team obviously hit a nerve and exposed the great need for a better Facebook. One of the main points that critics of Facebook raise is that as a user, one hardly knows what the company does with one’s personal data. Users lose control over their images, ideas and information once they are posted on the site. The data lies on one of the many Facebook servers, where it is analyzed for potential matches with specific promotional messages. Diaspora relies on private non-commercial servers instead of central computer centers which are controlled by a company. As a user, you are the only person who can decide whether your information ever resides on a public server, and you can even host your own server in order to retain control over data. Those who wish to give Diaspora a shot can fi nd more details at diasporaproject.org and get started at podupti.me, which is an index of over 50 public “pods” that you can register with.
                        At the moment, the developers run a website called joindiaspora.com which is the closest thing to an offi cial pod. Users can request an invitation but most can join only if they are invited by an existing user. This server runs in a self-described “closed alpha” status. The public-release beta phase has already been delayed several times but is expected to begin soon. Once you have registered you just need to log in there each time, as your account data is exclusive to its own “pod”. Despite this, you can communicate with anyone who has registered with any of the pods—this is the main attraction of Diaspora. You can read their status messages, can write personal messages, and interact without worrying about data harvesting.

More control over your own data 

If you are registered on a public pod then do the same questions regarding the operators’ intentions regarding data harvesting apply? The New York University students who created Diaspora now operate it as a charitable organization which runs only on donations. The operators of other public pods have committed to transparency. Many pod operators have already started leading the way as good examples by entering their own information in detail without worrying about data harvesting and unauthorized use. Of course, you have the option of using your own server which will manage only your data. This means maximum control without having to give up on any function off ered by the social networking site and without being restricted to only those who use a common pod or a set of public pods.              
                       Diaspora allows downloading of all previously uploaded data from the server using an export function. This is provided to help you shift from a public pod to your own server. The software required for your own pod can be downloaded for free from github.com/diaspora/diaspora/wiki. The setup process is not exactly trivial, but a detailed description is available on the site which explains things in a step-by-step manner. A private pod just needs a standard PC—a typical public pod with 20,000 users can run on just two ordinary servers. If you want to run your own pod for other users—such as for friends and family members—then you just have to ensure that the computer running the Diaspora software is connected with a stable, always-on Internet connection, or users won’t be able to log in. The Diaspora web user interface and usage instructions remain the same irrespective of whether you are on your own server or a public one. At the time that the source code was published in September 2010, there was only a skimpy news stream to see friends’ profiles and download their photos. Data traffic in Diaspora networks was coded right from the building blocks with GnuPG encoding for safe data transfers. Newer versions allow Diaspora users to link with Facebook and Twitter such that status messages are posted through Diaspora to the larger social networks, allowing your friends to keep up with you. Another innovation is “Aspects”, the terminology for circles or lists of friends based on which you can define sharing permissions. Diaspora has also adopted functions from its rivals, such as page layouts, hashtags, a direct message system, and a “Heart” (“Like”) button. Users coming in from Facebook will now feel quite at home, and can appreciate its advantages immediately: Diaspora is free from ads and promotional messages, you can use pseudonyms, and of course the peace of mind that data is not passed on to outside companies.

The world beyond Facebook

Data protection and control are not the only areas in which Facebook can improve. It is massive and at times so confusing that users just get lost. This helps Facebook record associations and interactions between users, groups, activities and interests in as many ways as possible. The company’s mission is to form as many connections as possible. On the other hand, special interest networks have clearly set their focus on one subject, application or purpose. Such services have been available for ages, for example the photo site Flickr and the video community Vimeo. However, they were not developed with “social networking” in mind. This is exactly the gap which is now being filled by new services, which use social network concepts to form strong bonds between users and a strong association with their type of content. Tumblr and Pinterest are two of the fastest growing portals today, and both are designed to make the sharing of online content easy. You can share links and images on Facebook, but the news feed is too cluttered to reach those who have a specific interest. These newer sites show you what people or companies are posting, but sorted into category topics (for instance, landscape photography or dessert recipes). That is why the interesting articles and contributions keep appearing in the message stream. On Tumblr, which launched in 2007, one can search for subjects such as design, literature or technology. This helps you in finding interesting contributions within a few seconds. Personal associations work in the same way as in Twitter: you can follow any Tumblr user but he/she doesn’t have to follow you back. The difference with Twitter: The user is represented by a micro blog whose URL is determined during the registration. Thus, the user is not registered as a person but in the form of an URL. Anyone can post content to this micro blog, but you can participate even without posting. You can mark favorites and repost others’ entries. If you want to post something then this can also be in the form of audio files, not just images, videos, links and text as on Facebook. Using keywords (tags) you can also search for a particular subject and follow these tags. Thus, you will see posts even from users who you haven’t necessarily followed. Pinterest is another sharing platform. This digital photo and video pinboard has over 12 million unique visitors per month but is set to grow to several times that. This site is also organized into categories which help people find others with similar interests and follow them. In addition to this, many users create their own “Boards” which defi ne a fi eld or topic. The “Pin it” button—a small JavaScript bookmarklet that can be added to a Web browser toolbar—can be used to pin interesting images or videos from wherever you are on the Web to your chosen Boards. In the beginning, websites could not prevent their copyrighted content from spreading in this manner, which became a privacy issue for some, but this has been rectified since then. Pinterest’s main appeal lies in instantly collecting and sharing funny or useful things you stumble across online.

More recommendations by trusted friends 

                               New social networks don’t change only Web surfing patterns but also real-world behavior and habits. The German-language Couchfunk is dedicated to the latest TV shows, and users discuss plots such as possible culprits while seeing the scene of crime in real-time. Such discussions also happen on Facebook and Twitter, but these are much more suitable for events or trends such as someone winning an Oscar award. Couchfunk even allows users to specify that they do not want to know any spoilers about an episode they might not have seen yet. Such users were quick to jump on board with the special TV-focused service, which isn’t surprising—surveys show that at least 40 percent of TV viewers use a phone, tablet or laptop while watching TV. Smart TV applications could even strengthen this trend. Another category of social networks which have become popular is location-based services, like for instance, the popular Foursquare. It runs as a smartphone app using which you can “check in” to any place in the world, and then subsequently find friends or take advantage of offers and discounts at local businesses. Foursquare offers points and ranks for checking in—this is done to gain popularity—taking advantage of users’ natural competitive instinct. Even Facebook tried using the function “Places” when the trend became popular, but it never caught on. Considering the ever-growing number of smartphone users, one can constantly be online, and can use social networks to discover local community hotspots and bargains in surrounding areas. Such services makes it easier for the user to take a decision on the basis of the experiences and reviews of others, primarily those in their own social circle and those with similar priorities and interests.
                            Facebook and Google are well aware of this, and want these other services to use their own platforms, thus keeping users within their grasp. Facebook has already started offering a programming interface, and users can post content from other networks automatically using it. A Facebook account can also be used to sign in to new services, which reduces the pain of creating new accounts everywhere—and a sign that Facebook does not fear any competition in this area. On the contrary, it now benefi ts from this, as automatic content sharing increases the activity on Facebook and gives the company and its advertisers more information about users’ likes and habits. If any new social network emerges to take on Facebook, it will need to have a completely diff erent type of appeal as well as a well-liked user interface and intuitive operation. Facebook is familiar and comfortable for most, but while data privacy is not a visible problem for many, the frequent redesigns often do prompt people to declare they are leaving


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