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Facebook Comments kill web freedom

Bring back the trolls!

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Open...and Shut It turns out that the web's Wild West days may be over. Fueled in part by the early promise of unfettered freedom, the web has lately succumbed to middle age and a newfound sobriety that will simultaneously make the web less appealing to the tech elites and hugely useful for Main Street.

Those looking for a scapegoat can blame Apple. And Facebook.

Apple's role isn't all that surprising. While the company generally builds for the upper crust, pricing its products at a premium that the consuming world's Proletariat can scarce afford, Apple exercises a disproportionate effect on design trends in the wider technology market. The effect? To relentlessly weed out complexity in favor of elegance and simplicity.

The cool kids of yesteryear ran Linux. Today, they boot Macs. And tomorrow their children will use the even simpler-to-use iPads and iPhones. Each phase of personal computing has become more streamlined, with less room for coloring outside the lines.

Even Google's Android, which has displaced Apple at the top of the smart phone heap and will do the same thing in tablets within the next two to three years, no longer looks like the freedom fighter. Now with 33 per cent of the US smartphone market, compared to Apple's 25 per cent, Google is holding onto its lead by delivering more closely controlled development and distribution. Some partners, including Motorola, may hedge their Android bets in response. Yet far from dampening enthusiasm for Android, this shift toward heightened emphasis on quality control will likely bless Android with consumers, not hurt it.

But these are just the devices that we use to access the web. What about the heart of the web itself?

Well, that, too, is closing up. One great example is the rise of Facebook Comments, aimed to improve the tenor of online discourse by removing web anonymity, with all the "useful" commentary that comes with it. As The Economist notes:

Trolling is a side-effect of online anonymity. "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog", read the caption of a 1993 cartoon in The New Yorker. The problem is that so many people behave like one.

For those who believe web anonymity is a cardinal right of the web, and despair at the thought of anyone holding them accountable for what they say online, life's not all doom and gloom. Modern web browsers like Firefox 4 are increasingly implementing do-not-track functionality to hide their behavior from marketing companies, and private browsing mode in nearly every browser allows for untracked activity across the web.

But Facebook Comments is a beginning to the end of the web's adolescence, because it effectively corrals the free-wheeling culture of an open web into one big circle of friends: Facebook.

Facebook is arguably one of the greatest inventions ever, given its capacity to bring so many disparate people together in one place and connect us. But it's also a real concern that we may be giving Facebook far too much control of the web.

The problem, however, is that it's just so easy to do so. TechCrunch's Jon Evans rhapsodizes about how much he hates Facebook and its Comments functionality. Facebook Comments "reduce[s] everything down to a single dumbed-down inescapable standard, relentlessly mediocre and devoid of any color or possibility," he says. Yet, Evans admits that he'd continue to use it.

Why?

[I]t is easy to plug in, and it does solve the troll problem, and everyone's already on Facebook, and it helps to spread links, and it's just barely good enough and easy enough that it's not worth wrestling with alternatives.

I'm not sure Facebook could wish for a better advertisement itself. As for Evans, he could not possibly have written a more succinct description for why the web is being swept of its clutter and offered in the more sanitized form of Facebook: it's easy, it's good enough, and it's devoid of the boorish behavior of the trolls.

It's very possible that the ugly side of the web - trolls and such - are a necessary evil, one that we'll miss when we're all consumed by the Facebook borg. But it's also not surprising to see Facebook, Apple and others clean up by cleaning out so much of this ugliness. Most people don't want to make a statement: they just want to connect with friends, family, and work associates through email, Facebook, and other means.

Whether they're sacrificing too much remains to be seen.®

Matt Asay is senior vice president of business development at Strobe, a startup that offers an open source framework for building mobile apps. He was formerly chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfreso's general manager for the Americas and vice president of business development, and he helped put Novell on its open-source track. Asay is an emeritus board member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI). His column, Open...and Shut, appears twice a week on The Register.

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