New Google Area 120 project Shoelace aims to connect people around shared interests

A new project from Google’s in-house incubator, Area 120, aims to help people find things to do and others who share your same interests. Through a new app called Shoelace — a name designed to make you think of tying things together — users can browse through a set of hand-picked activities, or add their own to a map. For example, someone who wanted to connect with fellow dog owners could start an activity for a doggie playdate at the park, then start a group chat to coordinate the details and make new friends.

The end result feels a bit like a mashup of Facebook Events with a WhatsApp group chat, perhaps. But it’s wrapped in a clean, modern design that appeals more to the millennial or Gen Z user.

Like Meetup and others in the space, Shoelace’s focus is not on building yet another social networking app, but rather on leveraging a social app to inspire real-world connections.

This is not a novel idea. In fact, startups many times over have tried to create an alternative to Facebook by offering tools to connect users around locations or shared interests, instead of only re-creating users’ established friend networks online. And many cities today have their own social clubs designed to help people make new friends and participate in fun, local activities.

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Shoelace is still in invite-only testing and only offered in New York City, for the time being.

However, its website says that the long-term goal is to bring the app to cities nationwide after the team learns what does and does not work. There’s also a form that will allow you to request Shoelace in your own community.

Google has had a rocky history when it comes to social networking products. Its largest effort to date, Google+, finally wound down its consumer business in April. That said, Shoelace is not really a “Google” product — it’s a project built by Googlers as a part of the Area 120 incubator, where employees can experiment with new ideas full-time without having to leave the company.

“One of the many projects that we’re working on within Area 120 is Shoelace, an app that helps people meet others with similar interests in person through curated activities,” a Google spokesperson confirmed to TechCrunch. “Like other projects within Area 120, it’s an early experiment so there aren’t many details to share right now,” they said.

The app is live on Google Play and iOS (TestFlight) for those who have received an invite.

Fifty years of the internet

When my team of graduate students and I sent the first message over the internet on a warm Los Angeles evening in October, 1969, little did we suspect that we were at the start of a worldwide revolution. After we typed the first two letters from our computer room at UCLA, namely, “Lo” for “Login,” the network crashed.

Hence, the first Internet message was “Lo” as in “Lo and behold” – inadvertently, we had delivered a message that was succinct, powerful, and prophetic.

The ARPANET, as it was called back then, was designed by government, industry and academia so scientists and academics could access each other’s computing resources and trade large research files, saving time, money and travel costs. ARPA, the Advanced Research Projects Agency, (now called “DARPA”) awarded a contract to scientists at the private firm Bolt Beranek and Newman to implement a router, or Interface Message Processor; UCLA was chosen to be the first node in this fledgling network.

By December, 1969, there were only four nodes – UCLA, Stanford Research Institute, the University of California-Santa Barbara and the University of Utah. The network grew exponentially from its earliest days, with the number of connected host computers reaching 100 by 1977, 100,000 by 1989, a million by the early 1990’s, and a billion by 2012; it now serves more than half the planet’s population.

Along the way, we found ourselves constantly surprised by unanticipated applications that suddenly appeared and gained huge adoption across the Internet; this was the case with email, the World Wide Web, peer-to-peer file sharing, user generated content, Napster, YouTube, Instagram, social networking, etc.

It sounds utopian, but in those early days, we enjoyed a wonderful culture of openness, collaboration, sharing, trust and ethics. That’s how the Internet was conceived and nurtured.  I knew everyone on the ARPANET in those early days, and we were all well-behaved. In fact, that adherence to “netiquette” persisted for the first two decades of the Internet.

Today, almost no one would say that the internet was unequivocally wonderful, open, collaborative, trustworthy or ethical. How did a medium created for sharing data and information turn into such a mixed blessing of questionable information? How did we go from collaboration to competition, from consensus to dissention, from a reliable digital resource to an amplifier of questionable information?

The decline began in the early 1990s when spam first appeared at the same time there was an intensifying drive to monetize the Internet as it reached deeply into the world of the consumer. This enabled many aspects of the dark side to emerge (fraud, invasion of privacy, fake news, denial of service, etc.).

It also changed the nature of internet technical progress and innovations as risk aversion began to stifle the earlier culture of “moon shots”. We are currently still suffering from those shifts. The internet was designed to promote decentralized information, democracy and consensus based upon shared values and factual information. In this it has disappointed to fully achieve the aspirations of its founding fathers.

As the private sector gained more influence, their policies and goals began to dominate the nature of the Internet.  Commercial policies gained influence, companies could charge for domain registration, and credit card encryption opened the door for e-commerce. Private firms like AOL, CompuServe and Earthlink would soon charge monthly fees for access, turning the service from a public good into a private enterprise.

This monetization of the internet has changed it flavor. On the one hand, it has led to valuable services of great value. Here one can list pervasive search engines, access to extensive information repositories, consumer aids, entertainment, education, connectivity among humans, etc.  On the other hand, it has led to excess and control in a number of domains.

Among these one can identify restricted access by corporations and governments, limited progress in technology deployment when the economic incentives are not aligned with (possibly short term) corporate interests, excessive use of social media for many forms of influence, etc.

If we ask what we could have done to mitigate some of these problems, one can easily name two.  First, we should have provided strong file authentication – the ability to guarantee that the file that I receive is an unaltered copy of the file I requested. Second, we should have provided strong user authentication – the ability for a user to prove that he/she is whom they claim to be.

Had we done so, we should have turned off these capabilities in the early days (when false files were not being dispatched and when users were not falsifying their identities). However, as the dark side began to emerge, we could have then gradually turned on these protections to counteract the abuses at a level to match the extent of the abuse. Since we did not provide an easy way to provide these capabilities from the start, we suffer from the fact that it is problematic to do so for today’s vast legacy system we call the Internet.

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Having come these 50 years since its birth, how is the Internet likely to evolve over the next 50? What will it look like?

That’s a foggy crystal ball. But we can foresee that it is fast on its way to becoming “invisible” (as I predicted 50 years ago) in the sense that it will and should disappear into the infrastructure.

It should be as simple and convenient to use as is electricity; electricity is straightforwardly available via a trivially simple interface by plugging it into the wall; you don’t know or care how it gets there or where it comes from, but it delivers its services on demand.

Sadly, the internet is far more complicated to access than that. When I walk into a room, the room should know I’m there and it should provide to me the services and applications that match my profile, privileges and preferences.  I should be able to interact with the system using the usual human communication methods of speech, gestures, haptics, etc.

We are rapidly moving into such a future as the Internet of Things pervades our environmental infrastructure with logic, memory, processors, cameras, microphones, speakers, displays, holograms, sensors. Such an invisible infrastructure coupled with intelligent software agents imbedded in the internet will seamlessly deliver such services. In a word, the internet will essentially be a pervasive global nervous system.

That is what I judge will be the likely essence of the future infrastructure. However, as I said above, the applications and services are extremely hard to predict as they come out of the blue as sudden, unanticipated, explosive surprises!  Indeed, we have created a global system for frequently shocking us with surprises – what an interesting world that could be!

Looking back at Google+

Google+ is shutting down at last. Google announced today it’s sunsetting its consumer-facing social network due to lack of user and developer adoption, low usage and engagement. Oh, and a data leak. It even revealed how poorly the network is performing, noting that 90 percent of Google+ user sessions are less than five seconds long. Yikes.

But things weren’t always like this. Google+ was once heralded as a serious attempt to topple Facebook’s stranglehold on social networking, and was even met with excitement in its first days.

2011

June: The unveiling

The company originally revealed its new idea for social networking in June 2011. It wasn’t Google’s first foray into social, however. Google had made numerous attempts to offer a social networking service of some sort, with Orkut, launched in 2004 and shuttered in fall 2014; Google Friend Connect in 2008 (retired in 2012); and Google Buzz in 2010 (it closed the next year).

But Google+ was the most significant attempt the company had made, proclaiming at the time: “we believe online sharing is broken.”

The once top-secret project was the subject of several leaks ahead of its launch, allowing consumer interest in the project to build.

Led by Vic Gundotra and Bradley Horowitz, Google’s big idea to fix social was to get users to create groups of contacts — called “Circles” — in order to have more control over social sharing. That is, there are things that are appropriate for sharing with family or close friends, and other things that make more sense to share with co-workers, classmates or those who share a similar interest — like biking or cooking, for example.

But getting users to create groups is difficult because the process can be tedious. Google, instead, cleverly designed a user interface that made organizing contacts feel simpler — even fun, some argued. It also was better than the system for contact organization that Facebook was offering at the time.

Next thing you know, everyone was setting up their Circles by dragging-and-dropping little profile icons into these groups, and posting updates and photos to their newly created micro-networks.

Another key feature, “Sparks,” helped users find news and content related to a user’s particular interests. This way, Google could understand what people liked and wanted to track, without having an established base of topical pages for users to “Like,” as on Facebook. But it also paved the way for a new type of search. Instead of just returning a list of blue links, a search on Google+ could return people’s profiles who were relevant to the topic at hand, matching pages and other content.

Google+ also introduced Hangouts, a way to video chat with up to 10 people in one of your Circles at once.

At the time, the implementation was described as almost magical. This was due to a number of innovative features, like the way the software focused in on the person talking, for example, and the way everyone could share content within a chat.

Early growth looked promising

Within two weeks, it seemed Google had a hit on its hands, as the network had reached 10 million users. Just over a month after launch, it had grown to 25 million. By October 2011, it reached 40 million. And by year-end, 90 million. Even if Google was only tracking sign-up numbers, it still appeared like a massive threat to Facebook.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s first comment about Google+, however, smartly pointed out that any Facebook competitor will have to build up a social graph to be relevant. Facebook, which had 750 million users at the time, had already done this. Google+ was getting the sign-ups, but whether users would remain active over time was still in question.

There also were early signs that Google+’s embrace of non-friends could be challenging. It had to roll out blocking mechanisms months after launch, as the network became too spammy with unwanted notifications. Over the years that followed, its inability to control the spam became a major issue.

Even as late at 2017, people were still complaining that spam made Google+ unusable.

 

July: Backlashes over brands and Real Names policy

In an effort to compete with Facebook, Google+ also enforced a “real names” policy. This angered many users who wanted to use pseudonyms or nicknames, especially when Google began deleting their accounts for non-compliance. This was a larger issue than merely losing social networking access, because losing a Google account meant losing Gmail, Documents, Calendar and access to other Google products, too.

The company also flubbed its handling of brands’ pages, banning all Google business profiles in an ill-conceived fashion — something it later admitted was a mistake.

It wouldn’t fix some of these problems for years, in fact. Eric Schmidt even reportedly once suggested finding another social network if you didn’t want to use your real name — a comment that came across as condescending.

August: Social search

Google+ came to Google Search in August. The company announced Google+ posts would begin appearing in “social search” results that showed when users were signed in. Google called this new toggle “search plus your world.” But its slice of “your world” was pretty limited, as it couldn’t see into the posts shared among your friends and followers on Facebook and Twitter.

2012

January: Forced Google+ account creation

If you can’t beat ’em, force ’em! Google began to require users to have a Google+ account in order to sign up for Gmail. It was not a user-friendly change, and was the start of a number of forced integrations to come.

March: Criticism mounts

TechCrunch’s Devin Coldewey argued that Google failed to play the long game in social, and was too ambitious in its attempt with Google+. All the network really should have started with was its “+1” button — the clicks would generate piles of data tied to users that could then be searchable, private by default and shareable elsewhere.

June: Event spam goes viral

Spam remained an issue on Google+. This time, event spam had emerged, thanks to all the nifty integrations between Google+ and mission-critical products like Calendar.

Users were not thrilled that other people were able to “invite” them to events, and these automatically showed up on your Calendar — even if you had not yet confirmed that you would be attending. It made using Google+ feel like a big mistake.

November: Hangouts evolves

The following year after Google+’s launch, there was already a lot of activity around Hangouts — which interestingly, has since become one of the big products that will outlive its original Google+ home.

Video was a tough space to get right — which is why businesses like Skype were still thriving. And while Hangouts were designed for friends and family to use in Google+, Google was already seeing companies adopt the technology for meetings, and brands like the NBA for connecting with fans.

December: Google+ adds Communities

The focus on user interests in Google+ also continued to evolve this year with the launch of Communities — a way for people to set up topic-based forums on the site. The move was made in hopes of attracting more consumer interest, as growth had slowed.

2013

It’s not a destination; it’s a “social layer!” 

Google+ wasn’t working out as a “Facebook killer.” Engagement was low, distribution was mixed and it seemed it was only being used by tech early adopters, not the mainstream. So the new plan was to double down on Google+ not being a destination website, like Facebook, but rather make it a social layer across Google products.

It had already integrated Google+ with Gmail and Google Contacts, shortly after its launch. In June 2013, it offered a way for people to follow brands’ pages in Gmail.

It then decided to unify Google Talk (aka Gchat) with Google+ Messenger into Hangouts.

It launched a Google+ commenting system for Blogger.

It replaced Google sign-ins on third-party sites with Google+ logins.

It was all a bit much.

September: Google+ infiltrates YouTube

Then, most controversially, it took over YouTube comments. Now, if you wanted to comment on YouTube, you needed a Google+ account.

In other words, if Gmail’s then 200+ million users could juice up Google+, then maybe YouTube’s millions of commenters could, Google hoped.

People were not happy, to say the least.

It was a notable indication of how little love people had for Google+. YouTubers were downright pissed. One girl even crafted a profane music video in response, with lyrics like “You ruined our site and called it integration / I’m writing this song just to vent our frustration / Fuck you, Google Plusssssss!”

Google also started talking about Google+ as an “identity layer” with 500 million users to make it sound big.

2014

April: Vic Gundotra, Father of Google+, leaves Google

Google+ lost its founder. In April 2014, it was announced that Vic Gundotra, the father of Google+, was leaving the company. Google CEO Larry Page said at the time that the social network would still see investment, but it was a signal that a shift was coming in terms of Google’s approach.

Former TechCrunch co-editor Alexia Bonatsos (née Tsotsis) and editor Matthew Panzarino wrote at the time that Google+ was “walking dead,” having heard that Google+ was no longer going to be considered a product, but a platform.

The forced integrations of the past would be walked back, like those in Gmail and YouTube, and teams would be reshuffled.

July: Hangouts breaks free

Perhaps one of the most notable changes was letting Hangouts go free. Hangouts was a compelling product — too important to require a tie to Google+. In July 2014, Hangouts began to work without a Google+ account, rolled out to businesses and got itself an SLA.

July: Google+ drops its “real name” rule and apologizes

Another signal that Google+ was shifting following Gundotra’s exit was when it abandoned its “real name” policy, three years after the user outrage.

While Google had started rolling back on the real name policy in January of 2012 by opening rules to include maiden names and select nicknames, it still displayed your real name alongside your chosen name. It was nowhere near what people wanted.

Now, Google straight-up apologized for its decision around real names and hoped the change would bring users back. It did not. It was too late.

2015

May: Google Photos breaks free

Following Hangouts, Google realized that Google+’s photo-sharing features also deserved to become their own, standalone product.

At Google I/O 2015, the company announced its Google Photos revamp. The new product took advantage of AI and machine learning capabilities that originated on Google+. This included allowing users to search photos for persons, places and things, as well as an update on Google+’s “auto awesome” feature, which turned into the more robust Google Photos Assistant.

Later that year, Google Photos had scaled to 100 million monthly active users, after shutting down Google+ Photos in August 2015.

July: Google+ pulled from YouTube

In July 2015, Google reversed course on YouTube integrations with Google+ so YouTube comments stayed on YouTube, and not on Google+.

People were happy about this. But not happy enough to go back to Google+.

November: An all-new Google+ unveiled

Google+ got a big revamp in November 2015.

Bradley Horowitz, VP, Photos and Streams at Google and Product Director at Google, Luke Wroblewski, had teamed up to redesign Google+ around what Google’s data indicated was working: Communities and Collections. Essentially, the new Google+ was focused on users and their interests. It let people network around topics, but not necessarily their personal connections.

Google also rolled out “About Me” pages as an alternative to sites like About.me.

The new site got a colorful coat of paint, too, but it never regained traction.

2016

January: Google+ pulled from Android Gaming service

Google decoupled Google+ from another core product by dropping the requirement to have an account with the social network in order to use the Google Play Games services.

August: Google+ pulled from Play Store

The unbundling continued, as Google’s Play Store stopped requiring users to have a Google+ account to write reviews.

Horowitz explained at the time that Google had heard from users “that it doesn’t make sense for your Google+ profile to be your identity in all the other Google products you use,” and it was responding accordingly.

August: Hangouts on Air moved to YouTube Live

One of the social network’s last exclusive features, Hangouts on Air — a way to broadcast a Hangout — moved to YouTube Live in 2016, as well.

2017

Google+ went fairly quiet. The site was still there, but the communities were filling with spam. Community moderators said they couldn’t keep up. Google’s inattention to the problem was a signal in and of itself that the grand Google+ experiment may be coming to a close.

January: Classic design phased out

Google+ forced the change over to the new design first previewed in late 2015.

In January 2017, it no longer allowed users to switch back to the old look. It also took the time to highlight groups that were popular on Google+ to counteract the narrative that the site was “dead.” (Even though it was.)

August: Google+ removed share count from +1 button

The once ubiquitous “+1” button, launched in spring 2012, was getting a revamp. It would no longer display the number of shares. Google said this was to make the button load more quickly. But it was really because the share counts were not worth touting anymore.

2018

October 2018: Google+ got its Cambridge Analytica moment

A security bug allowed third-party developers to access Google+ user profile data since 2015 until Google discovered it in March, but decided not to inform users. In total, 496,951 users’ full names, email addresses, birth dates, gender, profile photos, places lived, occupation and relationship status were potentially exposed. Google says it doesn’t have evidence the data was misused, but it decided to shut down the consumer-facing Google+ site anyway, given its lack of use.

Data misuse scandals like Cambridge Analytica have damaged Facebook and Twitter’s reputations, but Google+ wasn’t similarly impacted. After all, Google was no longer claiming Google+ be a social network. And, as its own data shows, the network that remained was largely abandoned.

But the company still had piles of user profile data on hand, which were put at risk. That may lead Google to face a similar fate as the more active social networks, in terms of being questioned by Congress or brought up in lawmakers’ discussions about regulations.

In hindsight, then, maybe it would have been better if Google had shut down Google+ years ago.

Openbook is the latest dream of a digital life beyond Facebook

As tech’s social giants wrestle with antisocial demons that appear to be both an emergent property of their platform power, and a consequence of specific leadership and values failures (evident as they publicly fail to enforce even the standards they claim to have), there are still people dreaming of a better way. Of social networking beyond outrage-fuelled adtech giants like Facebook and Twitter.

There have been many such attempts to build a ‘better’ social network of course. Most have ended in the deadpool. A few are still around with varying degrees of success/usage (Snapchat, Ello and Mastodon are three that spring to mine). None has usurped Zuckerberg’s throne of course.

This is principally because Facebook acquired Instagram and WhatsApp. It has also bought and closed down smaller potential future rivals (tbh). So by hogging network power, and the resources that flow from that, Facebook the company continues to dominate the social space. But that doesn’t stop people imagining something better — a platform that could win friends and influence the mainstream by being better ethically and in terms of functionality.

And so meet the latest dreamer with a double-sided social mission: Openbook.

The idea (currently it’s just that; a small self-funded team; a manifesto; a prototype; a nearly spent Kickstarter campaign; and, well, a lot of hopeful ambition) is to build an open source platform that rethinks social networking to make it friendly and customizable, rather than sticky and creepy.

Their vision to protect privacy as a for-profit platform involves a business model that’s based on honest fees — and an on-platform digital currency — rather than ever watchful ads and trackers.

There’s nothing exactly new in any of their core ideas. But in the face of massive and flagrant data misuse by platform giants these are ideas that seem to sound increasingly like sense. So the element of timing is perhaps the most notable thing here — with Facebook facing greater scrutiny than ever before, and even taking some hits to user growth and to its perceived valuation as a result of ongoing failures of leadership and a management philosophy that’s been attacked by at least one of its outgoing senior execs as manipulative and ethically out of touch.

The Openbook vision of a better way belongs to Joel Hernández who has been dreaming for a couple of years, brainstorming ideas on the side of other projects, and gathering similarly minded people around him to collectively come up with an alternative social network manifesto — whose primary pledge is a commitment to be honest.

“And then the data scandals started happening and every time they would, they would give me hope. Hope that existing social networks were not a given and immutable thing, that they could be changed, improved, replaced,” he tells TechCrunch.

Rather ironically Hernández says it was overhearing the lunchtime conversation of a group of people sitting near him — complaining about a laundry list of social networking ills; “creepy ads, being spammed with messages and notifications all the time, constantly seeing the same kind of content in their newsfeed” — that gave him the final push to pick up the paper manifesto and have a go at actually building (or, well, trying to fund building… ) an alternative platform. 

At the time of writing Openbook’s Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign has a handful of days to go and is only around a third of the way to reaching its (modest) target of $115k, with just over 1,000 backers chipping in. So the funding challenge is looking tough.

The team behind Openbook includes crypto(graphy) royalty, Phil Zimmermann — aka the father of PGP — who is on board as an advisor initially but billed as its “chief cryptographer”, as that’s what he’d be building for the platform if/when the time came. 

Hernández worked with Zimmermann at the Dutch telecom KPN building security and privacy tools for internal usage — so called him up and invited him for a coffee to get his thoughts on the idea.

“As soon as I opened the website with the name Openbook, his face lit up like I had never seen before,” says Hernández. “You see, he wanted to use Facebook. He lives far away from his family and facebook was the way to stay in the loop with his family. But using it would also mean giving away his privacy and therefore accepting defeat on his life-long fight for it, so he never did. He was thrilled at the possibility of an actual alternative.”

On the Kickstarter page there’s a video of Zimmermann explaining the ills of the current landscape of for-profit social platforms, as he views it. “If you go back a century, Coca Cola had cocaine in it and we were giving it to children,” he says here. “It’s crazy what we were doing a century ago. I think there will come a time, some years in the future, when we’re going to look back on social networks today, and what we were doing to ourselves, the harm we were doing to ourselves with social networks.”

“We need an alternative to the social network work revenue model that we have today,” he adds. “The problem with having these deep machine learning neural nets that are monitoring our behaviour and pulling us into deeper and deeper engagement is they already seem to know that nothing drives engagement as much as outrage.

“And this outrage deepens the political divides in our culture, it creates attack vectors against democratic institutions, it undermines our elections, it makes people angry at each other and provides opportunities to divide us. And that’s in addition to the destruction of our privacy by revenue models that are all about exploiting our personal information. So we need some alternative to this.”

Hernández actually pinged TechCrunch’s tips line back in April — soon after the Cambridge Analytica Facebook scandal went global — saying “we’re building the first ever privacy and security first, open-source, social network”.

We’ve heard plenty of similar pitches before, of course. Yet Facebook has continued to harvest global eyeballs by the billions. And even now, after a string of massive data and ethics scandals, it’s all but impossible to imagine users leaving the site en masse. Such is the powerful lock-in of The Social Network effect.

Regulation could present a greater threat to Facebook, though others argue more rules will simply cement its current dominance.

Openbook’s challenger idea is to apply product innovation to try to unstick Zuckerberg. Aka “building functionality that could stand for itself”, as Hernández puts it.

“We openly recognise that privacy will never be enough to get any significant user share from existing social networks,” he says. “That’s why we want to create a more customisable, fun and overall social experience. We won’t follow the footsteps of existing social networks.”

Data portability is an important ingredient to even being able to dream this dream — getting people to switch from a dominant network is hard enough without having to ask them to leave all their stuff behind as well as their friends. Which means that “making the transition process as smooth as possible” is another project focus.

Hernández says they’re building data importers that can parse the archive users are able to request from their existing social networks — to “tell you what’s in there and allow you to select what you want to import into Openbook”.

These sorts of efforts are aided by updated regulations in Europe — which bolster portability requirements on controllers of personal data. “I wouldn’t say it made the project possible but… it provided us a with a unique opportunity no other initiative had before,” says Hernández of the EU’s GDPR.

“Whether it will play a significant role in the mass adoption of the network, we can’t tell for sure but it’s simply an opportunity too good to ignore.”

On the product front, he says they have lots of ideas — reeling off a list that includes the likes of “a topic-roulette for chats, embracing Internet challenges as another kind of content, widgets, profile avatars, AR chatrooms…” for starters.

“Some of these might sound silly but the idea is to break the status quo when it comes to the definition of what a social network can do,” he adds.

Asked why he believes other efforts to build ‘ethical’ alternatives to Facebook have failed he argues it’s usually because they’ve focused on technology rather than product.

“This is still the most predominant [reason for failure],” he suggests. “A project comes up offering a radical new way to do social networking behind the scenes. They focus all their efforts in building the brand new tech needed to do the very basic things a social network can already do. Next thing you know, years have passed. They’re still thousands of miles away from anything similar to the functionality of existing social networks and their core supporters have moved into yet another initiative making the same promises. And the cycle goes on.”

He also reckons disruptive efforts have fizzled out because they were too tightly focused on being just a solution to an existing platform problem and nothing more.

So, in other words, people were trying to build an ‘anti-Facebook’, rather than a distinctly interesting service in its own right. (The latter innovation, you could argue, is how Snap managed to carve out a space for itself in spite of Facebook sitting alongside it — even as Facebook has since sought to crush Snap’s creative market opportunity by cloning its products.)

“This one applies not only to social network initiatives but privacy-friendly products too,” argues Hernández. “The problem with that approach is that the problems they solve or claim to solve are most of the time not mainstream. Such as the lack of privacy.

“While these products might do okay with the people that understand the problems, at the end of the day that’s a very tiny percentage of the market. The solution these products often present to this issue is educating the population about the problems. This process takes too long. And in topics like privacy and security, it’s not easy to educate people. They are topics that require a knowledge level beyond the one required to use the technology and are hard to explain with examples without entering into the conspiracy theorist spectrum.”

So the Openbook team’s philosophy is to shake things up by getting people excited for alternative social networking features and opportunities, with merely the added benefit of not being hostile to privacy nor algorithmically chain-linked to stoking fires of human outrage.

The reliance on digital currency for the business model does present another challenge, though, as getting people to buy into this could be tricky. After all payments equal friction.

To begin with, Hernández says the digital currency component of the platform would be used to let users list secondhand items for sale. Down the line, the vision extends to being able to support a community of creators getting a sustainable income — thanks to the same baked in coin mechanism enabling other users to pay to access content or just appreciate it (via a tip).

So, the idea is, that creators on Openbook would be able to benefit from the social network effect via direct financial payments derived from the platform (instead of merely ad-based payments, such as are available to YouTube creators) — albeit, that’s assuming reaching the necessary critical usage mass. Which of course is the really, really tough bit.

“Lower cuts than any existing solution, great content creation tools, great administration and overview panels, fine-grained control over the view-ability of their content and more possibilities for making a stable and predictable income such as creating extra rewards for people that accept to donate for a fixed period of time such as five months instead of a month to month basis,” says Hernández, listing some of the ideas they have to stand out from existing creator platforms.

“Once we have such a platform and people start using tips for this purpose (which is not such a strange use of a digital token), we will start expanding on its capabilities,” he adds. (He’s also written the requisite Medium article discussing some other potential use cases for the digital currency portion of the plan.)

At this nascent prototype and still-not-actually-funded stage they haven’t made any firm technical decisions on this front either. And also don’t want to end up accidentally getting into bed with an unethical tech.

“Digital currency wise, we’re really concerned about the environmental impact and scalability of the blockchain,” he says — which could risk Openbook contradicting stated green aims in its manifesto and looking hypocritical, given its plan is to plough 30% of its revenues into ‘give-back’ projects, such as environmental and sustainability efforts and also education.

“We want a decentralised currency but we don’t want to rush into decisions without some in-depth research. Currently, we’re going through IOTA’s whitepapers,” he adds.

They do also believe in decentralizing the platform — or at least parts of it — though that would not be their first focus on account of the strategic decision to prioritize product. So they’re not going to win fans from the (other) crypto community. Though that’s hardly a big deal given their target user-base is far more mainstream.

“Initially it will be built on a centralised manner. This will allow us to focus in innovating in regards to the user experience and functionality product rather than coming up with a brand new behind the scenes technology,” he says. “In the future, we’re looking into decentralisation from very specific angles and for different things. Application wise, resiliency and data ownership.”

“A project we’re keeping an eye on and that shares some of our vision on this is Tim Berners Lee’s MIT Solid project. It’s all about decoupling applications from the data they use,” he adds.

So that’s the dream. And the dream sounds good and right. The problem is finding enough funding and wider support — call it ‘belief equity’ — in a market so denuded of competitive possibility as a result of monopolistic platform power that few can even dream an alternative digital reality is possible.

In early April, Hernández posted a link to a basic website with details of Openbook to a few online privacy and tech communities asking for feedback. The response was predictably discouraging. “Some 90% of the replies were a mix between critiques and plain discouraging responses such as “keep dreaming”, “it will never happen”, “don’t you have anything better to do”,” he says.

(Asked this April by US lawmakers whether he thinks he has a monopoly, Zuckerberg paused and then quipped: “It certainly doesn’t feel like that to me!”)

Still, Hernández stuck with it, working on a prototype and launching the Kickstarter. He’s got that far — and wants to build so much more — but getting enough people to believe that a better, fairer social network is even possible might be the biggest challenge of all. 

For now, though, Hernández doesn’t want to stop dreaming.

“We are committed to make Openbook happen,” he says. “Our back-up plan involves grants and impact investment capital. Nothing will be as good as getting our first version through Kickstarter though. Kickstarter funding translates to absolute freedom for innovation, no strings attached.”

You can check out the Openbook crowdfunding pitch here.

Facebook, Google face first GDPR complaints over “forced consent”

After two years coming down the pipe at tech giants, Europe’s new privacy framework, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), is now being applied — and long time Facebook privacy critic, Max Schrems, has wasted no time in filing four complaints relating to (certain) companies’ ‘take it or leave it’ stance when it comes to consent.

The complaints have been filed on behalf of (unnamed) individual users — with one filed against Facebook; one against Facebook-owned Instagram; one against Facebook-owned WhatsApp; and one against Google’s Android.

Schrems argues that the companies are using a strategy of “forced consent” to continue processing the individuals’ personal data — when in fact the law requires that users be given a free choice unless a consent is strictly necessary for provision of the service. (And, well, Facebook claims its core product is social networking — rather than farming people’s personal data for ad targeting.)

“It’s simple: Anything strictly necessary for a service does not need consent boxes anymore. For everything else users must have a real choice to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’,” Schrems writes in a statement.

“Facebook has even blocked accounts of users who have not given consent,” he adds. “In the end users only had the choice to delete the account or hit the “agree”-button — that’s not a free choice, it more reminds of a North Korean election process.”

We’ve reached out to all the companies involved for comment and will update this story with any response.

The European privacy campaigner most recently founded a not-for-profit digital rights organization to focus on strategic litigation around the bloc’s updated privacy framework, and the complaints have been filed via this crowdfunded NGO — which is called noyb (aka ‘none of your business’).

As we pointed out in our GDPR explainer, the provision in the regulation allowing for collective enforcement of individuals’ data rights in an important one, with the potential to strengthen the implementation of the law by enabling non-profit organizations such as noyb to file complaints on behalf of individuals — thereby helping to redress the imbalance between corporate giants and consumer rights.

That said, the GDPR’s collective redress provision is a component that Member States can choose to derogate from, which helps explain why the first four complaints have been filed with data protection agencies in Austria, Belgium, France and Hamburg in Germany — regions that also have data protection agencies with a strong record defending privacy rights.

Given that the Facebook companies involved in these complaints have their European headquarters in Ireland it’s likely the Irish data protection agency will get involved too. And it’s fair to say that, within Europe, Ireland does not have a strong reputation for defending data protection rights.

But the GDPR allows for DPAs in different jurisdictions to work together in instances where they have joint concerns and where a service crosses borders — so noyb’s action looks intended to test this element of the new framework too.

Under the penalty structure of GDPR, major violations of the law can attract fines as large as 4% of a company’s global revenue which, in the case of Facebook or Google, implies they could be on the hook for more than a billion euros apiece — if they are deemed to have violated the law, as the complaints argue.

That said, given how freshly fixed in place the rules are, some EU regulators may well tread softly on the enforcement front — at least in the first instances, to give companies some benefit of the doubt and/or a chance to make amends to come into compliance if they are deemed to be falling short of the new standards.

However, in instances where companies themselves appear to be attempting to deform the law with a willfully self-serving interpretation of the rules, regulators may feel they need to act swiftly to nip any disingenuousness in the bud.

“We probably will not immediately have billions of penalty payments, but the corporations have intentionally violated the GDPR, so we expect a corresponding penalty under GDPR,” writes Schrems.

Only yesterday, for example, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg — speaking in an on stage interview at the VivaTech conference in Paris — claimed his company hasn’t had to make any radical changes to comply with GDPR, and further claimed that a “vast majority” of Facebook users are willingly opting in to targeted advertising via its new consent flow.

“We’ve been rolling out the GDPR flows for a number of weeks now in order to make sure that we were doing this in a good way and that we could take into account everyone’s feedback before the May 25 deadline. And one of the things that I’ve found interesting is that the vast majority of people choose to opt in to make it so that we can use the data from other apps and websites that they’re using to make ads better. Because the reality is if you’re willing to see ads in a service you want them to be relevant and good ads,” said Zuckerberg.

He did not mention that the dominant social network does not offer people a free choice on accepting or declining targeted advertising. The new consent flow Facebook revealed ahead of GDPR only offers the ‘choice’ of quitting Facebook entirely if a person does not want to accept targeting advertising. Which, well, isn’t much of a choice given how powerful the network is. (Additionally, it’s worth pointing out that Facebook continues tracking non-users — so even deleting a Facebook account does not guarantee that Facebook will stop processing your personal data.)

Asked about how Facebook’s business model will be affected by the new rules, Zuckerberg essentially claimed nothing significant will change — “because giving people control of how their data is used has been a core principle of Facebook since the beginning”.

“The GDPR adds some new controls and then there’s some areas that we need to comply with but overall it isn’t such a massive departure from how we’ve approached this in the past,” he claimed. “I mean I don’t want to downplay it — there are strong new rules that we’ve needed to put a bunch of work into into making sure that we complied with — but as a whole the philosophy behind this is not completely different from how we’ve approached things.

“In order to be able to give people the tools to connect in all the ways they want and build committee a lot of philosophy that is encoded in a regulation like GDPR is really how we’ve thought about all this stuff for a long time. So I don’t want to understate the areas where there are new rules that we’ve had to go and implement but I also don’t want to make it seem like this is a massive departure in how we’ve thought about this stuff.”

Zuckerberg faced a range of tough questions on these points from the EU parliament earlier this week. But he avoided answering them in any meaningful detail.

So EU regulators are essentially facing a first test of their mettle — i.e. whether they are willing to step up and defend the line of the law against big tech’s attempts to reshape it in their business model’s image.

Privacy laws are nothing new in Europe but robust enforcement of them would certainly be a breath of fresh air. And now at least, thanks to GDPR, there’s a penalties structure in place to provide incentives as well as teeth, and spin up a market around strategic litigation — with Schrems and noyb in the vanguard.

Schrems also makes the point that small startups and local companies are less likely to be able to use the kind of strong-arm ‘take it or leave it’ tactics on users that big tech is able to use to extract consent on account of the reach and power of their platforms — arguing there’s a competition concern that GDPR should also help to redress.

“The fight against forced consent ensures that the corporations cannot force users to consent,” he writes. “This is especially important so that monopolies have no advantage over small businesses.”

Image credit: noyb.eu

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