Law in the Internet Society

THE FACEBOOK EXODUS: How Will Facebook Respond to the Soft Migration to Federated Social Platforms? [REVISION #2]

-- By DavidKorvin - 27 Mar 2013


As we progressed in our discussions this semester, and spoke of the ways in which Facebook serves to manipulate and restrict personal liberty, it became increasingly clear to me that I no longer felt comfortable using my Facebook account as a means of socializing on the internet. The easy party was deactivating my personal Facebook account and joining Diaspora*, which differs from Facebook because Diaspora* is an example of a strong, federated platform that allows people to do all the sharing they currently do, but more securely because there is no "man in the middle" sorting all the data and looking through all of it.

When I rewrote this paper in December, I thought it would be fairly easy to convince my friends to move away from Facebook to more secure platforms; as your comments noted, I have not found this to be the case. However, in earlier revisions I was mistaken because I thought that Facebook and federated social networking interacted like water and oil: that they didn't mix. But in actuality, federated social networks such as Diaspora* allow users to share with others on both central storage services and these federated networks.

As a result, I think my lack of knowledge caused me to ask the wrong question in earlier attempts of addressing migration from Facebook. Instead of asking what these federated social networks need to do to cause users to migrate from Facebook, I think the more appropriate question to ask is the following: How will centralized services, particularly Facebook, respond to this soft migration to secure, federated platforms once this migration becomes significant in size?

Is the Soft Migration Inevitable?

Facebook's business model and future growth is based on maintaining its current users and increasing its number of new users. While Facebook reports that it has over 1 billion users (though, this reported number may be dubious), Diaspora* estimates that it currently has a little over 400,000 pod users. Thus, as Diaspora* has much less than one percent of Facebook's total number of users, Facebook probably does not see Diaspora* as currently threatening its business model.

However, as mentioned earlier, one of the beauties of soft migration is that timing is not a crucial element for it to occur; friends that migrate from Facebook to more secure, federated platforms do not leave their friends that stay on Facebook "behind." When federated platforms improve their features enough that they allow for the same user experience as Facebook (without a surveillance team watching that user's activity), there will be no substantive reason for people to stay on Facebook. Thus, because federated platforms allow one to stay in touch with people that remain on centralized services, it is not a question of if federated platforms will challenge Facebook's current position, but a question of when.

How Will Facebook Respond?

Facebook's dominant position will be challenged by federated social platforms, so Facebook will have to respond to these challenges if it wishes to remain viable, both as a social platform and as a business entity. As Facebook has invested billions in its current infrastructure, I don't see it converting its current centralized service to a federated platform. As I see it, once the soft migration reaches a point where it impacts Facebook's bottom line, Facebook can do one of two things to convince users to stay: (1) convince users that it no longer does surveillance on them, or (2) ensure that federated platforms will never be able to allow people to do the same things that they can do if they remain on Facebook; both of these tactics have large underlying problems, however.

Because much of (if not all) of the revenue Facebook generates is based off of the surveillance it does on its users, Facebook will be very wary of changing its current surveillance strategy. Further, even if Facebook did somehow decide to no longer do surveillance on its users, the fact that Facebook stores the actual bits that are being shared means that Facebook will never be as trustworthy as federated platforms where users are the ones who remain in sole possession of the data they choose to post.

Thus, the only real option Facebook has moving forward if it wishes to maintain its currently dominant position is to somehow ensure that federated platforms cannot match the user experience that Facebook provides. However, I think that this is much easier said than done. As more people migrate to federated platforms, there will be greater demand from these migrants for the experience on these networks to equal that of the one on Facebook. If this proves to be the case, Facebook will face a probably insurmountable task in trying to maintain a perpetual competitive advantage over its federated platform counterparts. When Facebook's user experience is matched (if not improved), its advantage in the number of users it has will evaporate.


The path to regained online privacy is not a straight one; nonetheless, federated social network's ability to let users not leave friends behinds ensures that this endpoint is inevitable. Originally, I was concerned with how I could convince friends to leave Facebook, but "soft migration" will make this process occur much more organically than I had anticipated. Further, once this migration reaches a certain point, Facebook will very likely not be able to do much to prevent or even slow down this process. It is satisfying to know that Facebook's dominance is not perpetual, but still frustrating that a time stamp cannot be officially set on Facebook's inevitable expiration date; nonetheless, knowing the process of why this will eventually result helps calm the nerves.


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r12 - 23 Aug 2014 - 19:31:21 - EbenMoglen
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