Facebook claims to have more than 400 million active users. In fact, according to Web analytics firm Alexa, only Google is a more popular site. So, with all that going for it, why are so many users unhappy, with one poll showing that more than half of Facebook users are thinking about leaving?
The one-word answer: privacy. By default, Facebook has made almost everything on your account open to the world. You can lock down your Facebook account, but it's a tedious process.
New tools unveiled this week are designed to make this easier, but the next time Facebook changes its policies and system, you may need to do it all over again. There are also external tools that can check out just how secure your account is, but again, when Facebook changes its software, they may not work.
Last Monday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg finally admitted that Facebook has made some mistakes. Some users are staying put despite their distrust of the company. But others think it's too little too late and are talking loudly about leaving. There's even a group that has announced that May 31 is Quit Facebook Day.
Will a significant percentage of Facebook users actually leave? No matter its faults, Facebook has a huge user base, and those users, in turn, have all their friends on the service, all their photos and, yes, even all their Farmville farms. Will that many people really want to abandon Facebook and start all over with a new platform?
They have before. In social networking's early days -- all of five years ago -- Friendster, MySpace and Xanga all had their days in the sun. Now those once-popular social networks are in decline.
There are, of course, the other existing social networks. But some, like MySpace and LiveJournal, seem to have missed their moment. Others, such as the professional-oriented LinkedIn, have established a specific niche or, like Twitter, address different needs.
A group of would-be Facebook replacements have recently raised their hands, hoping that enough disenchanted users will see them as viable alternatives. Some are already out there, some are in beta, and some have hardly gotten past the "what-if" stage.
Who are these players, and do any of them have what it takes to become the next big social network?
While this open-source project is still in beta, it's an interesting take on social networking. Instead of being under the control of one company and one set of administrators, Appleseed works via a distributed server software package tied together with the ASN (Appleseed Social Network).
That means that as a user, you select and log into an Appleseed site. Once there, you connect with friends, send messages, share photos and videos, join discussions and participate in all the usual social networking stuff. Don't like the specific Appleseed site you're on? Then sign up for a different one and, according to the site, "immediately reconnect with everyone in your network."
It sounds good, but I can't help but notice that even though the program is officially in beta, I couldn't find any ASN sites to log into yet.
In a recent New York Times article, Michael Chisari, an Appleseed developer, said that the project is six months away from opening its doors to the public. It looks promising, but I'm not holding my breath on seeing Appleseed give Facebook serious competition anytime soon.
Diaspora, for all the headlines it's gotten, is still not much more than an idea. Mind you, with almost $200,000 of support from thousands of donors at Kickstarter.com, it's also a very popular idea.
Technically, Diaspora sounds a lot like Appleseed. It's also going to be built from open-source software, and it's going to be a distributed network server application. More power to them, but at least Appleseed already has some code.
The first Diaspora code release is slated for September.
Along with these fledgling projects, there's an open-source social network software platform that's already available and working: Elgg. However, there is a fundamental difference between Elgg and these other networks: Rather than being a social network, Elgg is designed for companies and groups to run their own social networks.
You can either run your own Elgg installation -- according to the Web site, the developers will be happy to help you --- or you can host your site with a provider that specializes in Elgg sites. Starting later this summer, you'll also be able to host it on Elgg.com itself.
While businesses and social groups may find Elgg interesting, it's not really a Facebook competitor in and of itself. Of course, if someone were to decide to use Elgg as the foundation for a Facebook challenger, that would be a different story. I'd be very surprised if someone doesn't try it.
Lorea describes itself as "a project to create secure social cybernetic systems, in which human networks will become simultaneously represented on a virtual shared world." It's an experimental social network that combines some aspects of social networking, such as communities and real-time updating a la Twitter, with blogging.
While I wouldn't eliminate it as a contender, Lorea may be less a Facebook competitor than a site for programmers who want to explore the fundamental concepts of how social networks should work.
This is another open-source, decentralized social network that's not ready for prime time. But unlike Appleseed and Diaspora, the Vodafone Group's OneSocialWeb is not only hoping to become a social network itself, but also to be the focal point for all the other social networks you may belong to.
For example, if OneSocialWeb works as planned, it will provide the common infrastructure from which you can access all your friends' information, photos, comments, etc., from Twitter, Facebook and other networks.
Of course, for this to work, the other social networks would have to agree to play by OneSocialWeb's rules -- and I suspect they won't want to make it easy for users to jump from their own network to another.
Look for a public OneSocialWeb beta later this summer.
Like Elgg, Pligg is an open-source platform for building social networks. The key difference between the two is that Pligg is also a content management system.
Specifically, Pligg is a CMS that enables users to submit and vote on news articles, like Digg. Besides the usual up-or-down voting system, Pligg offers a chance to rate the articles using a five-star scale. While more than good enough for this kind of story-sharing, Pligg really isn't going to be the basis of a Facebook-type network.
Here's the good news: Pip.io is already up and running, and it is a real would-be Facebook competitor. Here's the bad news: It is still very rough. For example, when I tried to log into the site, it wouldn't accept '08' as a valid date entry for my birth month, and it couldn't deal with the hyphen in my last name.
Pip.io is one of the social networking sites contending for the Facebook crown.
After that, I still found it annoying. For instance, when I asked it to find members of Pip.io whom I already knew by using my Gmail contact list, it instead offered to let me invite everyone on my thousand-plus address book to join me on Pip.io. That's really not what I had in mind.
The interface, which owes more to Twitter than to Facebook, is easy to use. It also enables you to use other social networks such as Facebook and Twitter from Pip.io. In short, Pip.io is trying to be both a social network and a social network client.
It may, eventually, do quite well at all these jobs. But for now, it's a work in progress.
And, the winner is ...
Which one of these contenders will topple Facebook from its somewhat shaky social networking throne? At this point, I'd have to say "None of them." Pip.io is the closest, but it's just not ready yet.
Like it or lump it, if you can stomach the privacy issues, Facebook is still your best social network option for keeping up with friends and family. If Facebook makes good on its promises to do better with privacy concerns, it will remain the top social network. If it doesn't -- well, someone will invent a better social network, but it's not here yet.
Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been writing about technology and the business of technology since CP/M-80 was cutting-edge and 300bit/sec. was a fast Internet connection -- and we liked it! He can be reached at email@example.com.
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This story, "7 Would-Be Facebook Replacements: How They Rate" was originally published by Computerworld.