Socialize the Social Network & End the Facebook Monopoly
by Glen Wallace
“Our freedom of choice in a competitive society rests on the fact that, if one person refuses to satisfy our wishes we can turn to another.”
– F.A. Hayek ‘The Road To Serfdom’
Should social networking sites be considered monopolies? I contend that Facebook and similar sites effectively prevent competition not through deliberate monopolistic trust efforts but just by being successful. While there may be competition in the fight to become the dominant social networking site, once any site has achieved that status then the choices of the consumer become very limited. For instance if I want to announce something to my friends online at one website, then I have no other option, if I want them to see the message, other than posting it on Facebook. I mean, I suppose I could post something on MySpace or Google+ if I prefer either, but who is going to see the post? Where is the competition induced meritocracy that is supposed to exist in commerce when it comes to online social networking? The very nature of such sites prevents competition to exist much at all. A fundamental difference exists between a site like Facebook and other sites whether it be a search engine like Google or a news site such as nytimes.com. If I want to search for something on Google or read a news article on the New York Times online site, it doesn’t matter if I’m the only one using the site, the quality of the content remains the same. But with a social networking site, the quality deteriorates according to how much less other people use the site.
While one might point out that with some products, the only way for a company to provide a product is if they have a large number of customers to provide the revenue to make the capital intensive product. The difference there, however, is that it is still practical to have more than one vendor for any given ordinary product. There may not be as many vendors to choose from as compared to a less capital intensive product, but still there should be at least a few vendors that are able to raise sufficient funds to run a business that provides any given product or service. But with social media, it is so inconvenient for multiple users to use multiple vendors that a certain degree of cooperation is necessary among all the consumers to use just one portal as a vendor. A similarity emerges between a general social media website like Facebook and a public utility that acts as a well regulated monopoly. The problem of course is that Facebook is not regulated like a public utility even though it still behaves and functions like one.
Personally I would rather such a de facto public commons website be either a non-profit like Craigslist, or a government, citizen owned public website or some sort of cooperative. People often complain about the changes that Facebook makes and their use of users information and posts. But really, the users have little to no control over what the behemoth Facebook corporation does, leaving users at their mercy.
I also don’t like the fact that I am inundated with all the ads on Facebook that pay for the huge executive salaries and helped turn Mark ‘Hoodie Boy’ Zuckerberg into a billionaire, and many of his minion of employees into multimillionaires. Why should we the users be made to feel ungrateful when complaining about a free site that has so many ads, when in fact it is us users that are really the givers, providing the valuable content that drives the hundreds of millions of visitors to the site to see the ads that provide the fortune of revenue to Facebook. Without the content that us ‘users’ provide, with all of our ‘status updates,’ without any expectation for remuneration from all those Facebook millionaires, the whole Facebook website would be completely worthless and all those young Facebook employees would all be just another worker bee struggling to make ends meet instead of being in the very comfortable financial position they are today. They should be on their knees thanking us ‘users’ for doing all the work that made them so rich. It is, after all, our content about our daily lives and thoughts that is unique and special and not the ordinary glorified cloud database software that is Facebook that the engineers there seem to be constantly busying themselves trying to fix what aint broke. Or to provide an another analogy, we the users are providing the goldmine of data and interesting personal stories and the Facebook corporation is providing an ordinary utilitarian mineshaft that has nothing special about it and any other mineshaft builder could have just as easily built and maintained just as well or better than Facebook has done. But in the field of social networking, I may want to use someone else’s ‘mineshaft’, but if almost everyone else is using another mineshaft builders shaft (Facebook), it doesn’t matter how much better the others mineshaft is to use, without the gold at the other end, it’s of little use.
That’s why I’d like some other choices, but know that effectively I do not due to their monopoly over social networking. In terms of commercial user input websites, I would prefer something like wordpress.com were the default social networking site due to their minimalist approach to placement of ads. While wordpress is more of a blogging site, because it already allows ‘following’ and user updates, it wouldn’t take much modifications to turn it into a social website also. But despite the assurances provided by Hayek’s quote at the opening of this essay, even though Facebook refuses to satisfy my wishes there is no other social networking website out there to turn to that both satisfy my wishes of minimalist ads and also a goldmine of online socializing. No freedom of choice exists because there is no competition due to the unique nature of online social networking.
So what is the solution? The situation is unique here compared to other monopolies such as the famous Standard oil which was simply broken up into smaller parts that could compete with each other. But how would one go about doing that with a social networking site? Would you have to have your friends list get broken up into separate parts with each part going to a new social networking site that could compete with Facebook? That wouldn’t make much sense. The only viable solution that I see is to nationalize Facebook (and Twitter for the matter). I I would then change the name of the site to something more appropriate, like ‘The Public Commons.’ The only problem I see with such a nationalization is that, even though we are supposed to be living in a democracy, the federal government and its programs, often has become too much of an ivory tower organization, distancing itself from public input as to how it operates. Therefore I would insist that new ‘Public Commons’ website be a truly of-the-people organization with a barrier of control separating itself from the rest of the federal government. Therefore the new website would be one run entirely by a combination of open source and referendum votes on implementation of various open source solutions to the websites problems and proposed improvements.