Facebook is a….troublesome…company. The rampant disregard for personal privacy or the negative effects of the platform are concerning at best and actively evil at worst. So it’s not surprise that Jason Koebler’s recent Motherboard article about replacing Facebook with personal websites got a lot of traction, particularly among my more technoliterate friends.
But it’s not an easy solution as that. In the late 90s and early 00s, we had a collection of personal websites. There’s a reason that the centralized social media model (MySpace, Facebook, etc) took hold: a decentralized social network is hard.
The first hard part is getting people to use it. Facebook, to a degree not previously seen, made it really easy for the average person to have an online presence. They could easily share updates and post photos without having to know much of anything about computers or the Internet. They don’t have to worry about keeping anything except their content up-to-date.
The other hard part is connecting to those other people. It’s easy to broadcast your message out to the world. It’s harder to find those you want to keep up with. If someone is on Facebook, they’re findable. If you’re not sure it’s the John Doe you’re looking for, you have additional contextual cues like mutual friends, etc to make it more clear. That’s less clear with John Doe’s WordPress site.
And Facebook provides more social features. You can tag your friends in photos (for better and worse). It has group communication features. It has event management. It provides access control. Sure, you could put a decentralized version of that together, but that increases the complexity. At some point, if you want it to be widely used outside of the tech community, you need some kind of centralized service to act as a directory. And then at that point, why not just make the centralized service the host?
I’m not saying that a company like Facebook is inevitable. With regulation or better ethics (or both!) Facebook or a service a lot like it could provide similar value without trampling on democracy and privacy. But it’s clear that “just have a personal website” is not a real replacement for Facebook.