Is Facebook Good for the Internet? (Hint: No.)

A few years ago, when Facebook broke out of its college ghetto into the mainstream, many people welcomed it with open arms. At the time, it seemed like such a helpful, innocuous thing – it was easy to use and offered a neat, simple way for people to share things with each other.

And it’s true: Facebook is a great way for people unfamiliar with the web to get acquainted with it. While uploading photos, videos and one’s general thoughts were once the domain of those a bit more nerdy, Facebook made it simple for anyone to experience the web’s power for both expression and connection.

As time went on though, people began to become uneasy. First, Facebook seemed to have a shaky grasp of the concept of privacy and consumer rights – its Beacon advertising program was an unmitigated disaster. Search results would show up through Google without people knowing. Redesigns were rolled out and then changed after mass user outcry. The sheen had started to come off the gleaming start-up. Indeed, start-up hardly describes Facebook anymore, who are starting to catch up to Google in sheer reach.

Now, in another seemingly innocuous moment, Michael Arrington reports that Facebook is set to launch a simple feature by which people can ‘like’ various things around the web whether or not they appear on Facebook. This is in addition to both Facebook Connect, which lets people log into to all sorts of services with their Facebook account, plus more features Zuckerberg et al are set to announce at the Facebook F8 Developer Conference.

What it means is that Facebook is becoming the default way for many people to approach and access the web. ‘Liking’ a random post using Facebook’s system will, of course, only be visible to your Facebook friends, making Facebook the centre of many people’s web experience. As Arrington argues about this new feature:

Sound trivial? It isn’t. This is likely part of Facebook’s Open Graph API project that will incentivize third party sites to interact deeply with Facebook by sharing content and associated metadata.

Forget the corporate speak for a second, and what becomes clear is that a now massive company that is beginning to dominate web traffic is giving web sites incentive to integrate with the walled garden that is Facebook.

Unlike Twitter, which is open by default, Facebook is usually closed to the broader internet. While that makes it great for privacy, it also runs against the openness that makes the web so great.

Where is the interesting stuff in web culture happening? Behind the walls of Facebook? Or in the anarchy of ‘the free web’: in the startling creativity on Chatroulette; in the deep corners of web forums; or on open sites like Flickr and YouTube, where users upload content that is viewable to the whole world?

The thing is, all that creativity and energy is largely driven by the open, overlapping nature of the internet  where it’s precisely the mix of all those different things that results in the creation of the new. What started in blogging more than a decade ago has spread into a thriving culture that depends upon simple things like a link going to an open web site that requires no sign-up, or that photos you upload be visible and reusable to the whole world. What’s more, unlike many open websites, it’s impossible to use Facebook without seeing ads. By having Facebook become more central to our day-to-day usage of the web, some of that anarchic openness is threatened.

As if to demonstrate the danger that Facebook poses, they recently threatened a developer who made a simple little program to get rid of app clutter from your news feed. According to Facebook, you can’t decide how you want your web experience to look – they decide for you, and they’ll take down anyone who tries to interfere with that.

So sure, use Facebook to keep in touch with your friends. We all do. But the more Facebook becomes integrated into the general backbone of the social web, the more we rely on one company – with a shaky record on both openness and privacy – to dictate our online experience. And it doesn’t matter which company it is – whether Facebook, Google, Microsoft or Apple – any time a company gets that influential, it’s time to step back and think about what kind of internet we want.

By navneetalang

Navneet Alang is a technology-culture writer based in Toronto. You can find him on Twitter at @navalang

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