Build a better Facebook through open innovation

There is a rapid groundswell of concern about Facebook. The main issue is privacy, or rather Facebook’s attitude to individual privacy and data ownership. Over the years the default settings have relaxed from most items being private, to virtually none being so. Unless the user makes a concerted effort to change settings. Accordingly, there is a lot of talk about creating an alternative to Facebook. As is often the case, many are looking towards a more ‘open’ version, though what they mean by that may not always be clear.

One example that currently stands out is Diaspora*, a project idea to create a distributed system where each person manages their own data rather than trusting it to a central hub run by a business. In a few days the four NYU students behind the project have gained a lot of interest and an awful lot of micro funding pledges. As noted above, it is not surprising that they propose to use open standards, open source and open development in their descriptions. But could there be a better form of ‘open’ to consider here?

As Social Hacking points out, if you are going to build another open Facebook you might as well make sure it is an improvement. While the author makes several points for how to make sure you surpass the existing Facebook, one really stuck out when I read it.

3. Learn from Academic Researchers

Many people in the academic community are producing research that addresses how people interact both offline and online, as well as how people understand concepts of privacy and social networking. As websites continue to reshape the fabric of our society and Facebook in particular affects notions of privacy, you simply can’t afford to ignore these studies.

My interest was piqued not only because we at OSS Watch are based in academia and support research projects. Rather, I was interested as it hints at, but does not make explicit, a powerful opportunity from being ‘open’. Taking it at face value it’s possible to interpret the comment as a suggestion to read papers and be influenced by the ideas they contain. I was struck by a more powerful way to embrace the ideas, namely through open innovation in software, or open development of open source software.

Open Innovation allows companies and developers to directly engage with academics in a collaborative relationship likely to be much more fruitful than just consuming papers. This can lead to a win-win where the project gains from the theory, leading to more profitability, and the academic gets a working implementation of their work, not to mention exposure and validation. Hopefully the Diaspora* project will take steps to actively engage some of the listed academics in their project, and so reap the rewards.

There are some hurdles to overcome on the road to open innovation. Not least are issues of trust and cultural differences, along with the need to find the right people. However there is growing understanding of how to manage these issues, building on the wealth of experience learnt in those open source projects that have successfully crossed boundaries. JISC are also encouraging pilot studies of open innovation through the recent JISC Grant Funding 1/10: Access to Resources and Open Innovation.

On June 24/25/26 in Oxford there is an excellent opportunity to directly explore open innovation with the people who are actively engaged in it. The TransferSummit, provides a forum for business executives and members of the academic and research community to discuss requirements, challenges, and opportunities in the use, development, licensing, and future of Open Source technology. I hope to see you there.