Posted by: rolfsky | September 26, 2007

Gratis versus Libre in social networks

Yesterday I posted an article declaring that both Facebook and Google had still missed the point with social networks. It is not the social network itself that has of value, it’s the utility of it. Inevitably the market would be (or should be) driven to open-protocol networks with multiple providers. The telephone system works like this, as does email. Monopoly markets restrict progress while ferreting away cash.

At lunch the same day I was relating this post to my boss and he said, “but what does it matter if you do everything through Google, as long as they are open?

Immediately I stuttered, “well, it stifles innovation!” and thought that argument alone would make sense to him. Unfortunately he pressed on a bit and though I eventually provided enough reasons why one or two companies shouldn’t be in control of all that data, I still felt uneasy with my reasons why. The reason I’d given him of the possibility of “locking your data away” eventually made sense, but it was incomplete. Rolling this problem over in my brain, the answer finally came to me in the shower this morning. To understand why single-company networks are harmful, let’s first review the Gratis versus Libre discussion.

While the English language is a wonderful tool it does have an issue with the word “free”. Other languages make a distinction between “without cost” and “without restriction”. If you like mental imagery, you can easily see “free beer at a party” (without cost) and something up in the sky being “free as a bird” (without restriction). It makes no sense whatsoever to think of that little bluebird in the sky as “without cost”. To differentiate we can borrow some new words from our European cousins: “gratis” and “libre”.

When Google does finally go “100% open” as they have been discussing, their network will only be gratis. You can drink as much social networking as you like while you’re at the party. But you can’t take it out the door.

Now, this might not be a big issue for you. Free beer (or social networking) is still free beer and that’s awesome. You can enjoy it, mingle with friends, and forget it all afterwards. The problem with this model comes when you might want to drink something else, a new microbrew perhaps. Even if you can get as much free social networking you please, making the New and Improved version is totally up to and completely at the whim of said company. Closed networks and closed standards don’t allow anybody to improve, enhance, extend or otherwise explore something that Big-Co has the lock on.

The argument towards an open, libre social network architecture isn’t because I am worried my data will get locked away. I am worried that neither Google nor Facebook are all-knowing and therefore aren’t going to innovate as quickly as an entire industry looking at the problem separately.



  1. i dont know but if these two biggies are missing then who is leading?

  2. Hi there Rolf, another dutchie over here that enjoyed your presentation at E-day.

    After reading your article on Google and Gratis versus Libre i got an idea on the customer information at Google. Besides the search engine Google is investing a lot of time and money into customer information for behavioral targeting and so on for quite some time. Now here is the idea.

    Google provides us with lots of free toys on the web. In return they build up that huge customer information for their own commercial use. In a really free (gratis) environment I would assume that it should then also be possible for us personally to see what they know. “Show me my profile, where is my information stored?”

    What’s your idea on this?

  3. @:Edward
    You might be confusing gratis and libre 😉
    In a gratis network, Google isn’t obligated to provide you with anything, because beggars can’t be choosers after all. “Knowing what they know” is a freedom only experienced in a libre network.

    It may be an interesting incentive, however, in an attempt to “keep” users on a gratis platform.

  4. […] you’ll pay to network A week back I posted an article explaining why we needed a truly libre network and not the gratis networks as provided by incumbents or […]

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