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"Mr. Privacy" Is an Alternative to Facebook Worth Sharing

“Facebook killers” are a dime a dozen, but one that relies on email for its internal plumbing might just work.
December 16, 2010

“Because of network effects, there is a nontrivial possibility that a single proprietary company may own the majority of the world’s social graph,” reads the conclusion of a new paper on an intriguing entrant in the realm of social networking.

SocialBar logo and tagline: because comparing Facebook to the villain of George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 is what academics do.

As much manifesto as technical document, Mr. Privacy: Open and Federated Social Networking Using Email (pdf) by Fischer et al.* is a Martin Luther-like list of grievances transformed into working code – and luckily for everyone who would like to share and comment on webpages with friends without exposing their thoughts to the Mark Zuckerberg megabrain, it’s software that works surprisingly well.

At its most accessible, Mr. Privacy is a Firefox plugin called SocialBar that you should install immediately, especially if you share websites with friends or family who might want to open up comment threads on them.

The genius here is that rather than relying on a central server to store all your updates, as is the case with Facebook, Mr. Privacy and SocialBar uses a technology everyone already have access to: email. (To take full advantage, you’ll want to have a Gmail account.)

Within Firefox, sharing a link or webpage with a friend is as easy as popping open the SocialBar “sidebar,” which both allows a user to share the page they’re on and preserves the thread of any messages invited commenters make on the page. SocialBar also allows you to chronologically view all comments shared with you, and all comments made by a particular user, allowing it to display a thread of updates that’s a reasonable facsimile of the news stream that appears on Facebook.

Here’s a one-minute video demonstrating how SocialBar works:

SocialBar’s in-browser integration is neat, and the fact that conversations can be limited to any subset of your friends gives its users exquisite control over who will see their conversations.

That said, the software does have its limitations – for one, it’s not a true broadcast medium like Facebook: every time you share a conversation, you have to punch in the email addresses of the folks with whom you want to share. The software also has minor interface and formatting glitches that make it feel a little beta, which is to be expected – it’s brand new.

One reason SocialBar could succeed where other Facebook alternatives have failed is that it’s inherently viral: Because it relies on email as its underlying protocol (a feat that required quite a bit of creativity from its creators), items shared with friends who aren’t using SocialBar simply show up as automatically-generated, perfectly human-readable emails in their inbox, all of which are identified as having been generated by SocialBar and Mr. Privacy.

As the authors put it:

It is futile to create a decentralized platform that simply duplicates a well-entrenched social networking experience. Looking forward, we propose to create an in situ social networking platform that seamlessly embeds our contacts in every social application we run. The Mr. Privacy platform we propose relies on having common services available to applications on every platform (mobile phone operating systems and browsers on PCs). Mr. Privacy has the potential to reach millions of people quickly because it is built on top of the open and federated email platform.

We believe that Mr. Privacy is the first proposal that has a chance to challenge the status quo within the next few years. We need one or more killer applications developed using Mr. Privacy to help jump start this model.

Clearly, SocialBar is their first attempt to create the “killer application” that runs on the Mr. Privacy platform. Install it and let me know your thoughts - is it useful? Would you trust it with your link sharing and personal updates?

*Original Paper: Mr. Privacy: Open and Federated Social Networking Using Email, by Michael Fischer, T. J. Purtell, Ruven Chu and Monica S. Lam, all from Stanford University

Follow Mims on Twitter or contact him via email.

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