In December 2013 I came across something I still consider yet another proof of two things: first, much trust in the actual competence of many “digital savvy” Internet users is misplaced; second, many of the proposed alternatives to current social networks are trying to solve the wrong problem. Since it’s still relevant, here is a quote from an email in the public archive of the mailing list (emphasis mine):

It is clear to me that a growing number of everyday local residents are actually offended or at least perturbed if you ask them to use something other than Facebook to engage in their local community online. This rings true with many of the key friendly talkers and community networkers.

The problem with single platform via FB is that you lose non-FB users. That would be 30% of our users perhaps. I don’t want to exclude the over 50 crowd that prefer email and say, they’ll die first anyway. On the other hand if we don’t connect with more of the under 30 crowd we’ll die first. I believe in inter-generational neighborly connections and civic engagement.

So our ability to keep an independent, non-profit, open source, creative commons, online community base means we must push multi-tech integration further. This is a crucial alternative to having online groups locked into Facebook, Google, etc. on one side and being completely inacccesible design wise to everyday net users by using open source Mailman.

The first quoted paragraph is why I talk of misplaced trust: the many good people (including lots of the mythical “digital natives”) who are all about active citizenship, self-determination, etc… but will pout and throw a tantrum if you just dare suggest that doing that stuff outside Facebook and similar places (1), or with less eye candy than a smartphone app, could be both more coherent and more effective.

The third paragraph shows, if you just replace “Mailman” with Mailpile, Diaspora, FreedomBox, arkOS or any other of the “Facebook killers” that have received much attention lately, why I think that those projects are trying to solve the wrong problem. “Everyday net users” won’t use something that requires more than 23 mouse clicks to get started, doesn’t really integrate all services (email, blogging, actual social networking) in ONE “wall” and, above all, would require extra effort (the “multi-tech integration”) to keep direct interaction with all their Facebook-only friends still working (2).

By the way, I think that even the second, “who will die first” paragraph is important by itself. Here in Italy, and I believe in many other places, even the majority of the “over 50 crowd” never got to use email, or the Internet in general for anything serious outside their workplace. But many, many of them went from offline to Facebook addiction in one shot. Even many active citizenship or civil rights advocates are already gone the same route. In other words, if we wait just a little more for “real” solutions like the ones mentioned above, nobody will care to use them: real solutions for who, if they lack the right “multi-tech integration”?

  1. Interestingly, that email (please read it all, it’s interesting, as is the fact that it got no public answer on that list) is from a member of the same group (e-democracy) which had been already saying for one year that Facebook (Alone) Doesn’t Cut It for Neighbors Online.

  2. I already explained this point last year, for example here and here