A polite difference of opinion- MIT Media Lab and PSN

Chelsea Barabas, Neha Narula and Ethan Zuckerman from the respected MIT Media Lab argue in Wired Magazine last week that the decentralised networks on which practical  Private Social Networks (PSN’s) would rely are wishful thinking. In their view the obstacles to the development of useful PSN’s mean they can’t be commercially competitive and therefore will never materialise.

We accept that if you’re expecting PSN’s to replace public global platforms like Facebook you will be disappointed. But that isn’t what we should be hoping for or trying to achieve. With all due respect, it’s silly to argue that private decentralised networks can or should replace public centralised ones: They are by definition different things that have different reasons for being. Even as the MIT team smash up this straw man, they actually have very few practical objections and it’s possible their reasoning is underpinned by a number of misapprehensions about people.

Platforms don’t own users, but users can own them

The principle objection is that private social networks face challenges acquiring and keeping users. There is a wonderful piece of circular reasoning that underpins this argument. The MIT group states that “we join them [social networks] because our friends are there, not for ideological reasons like decentralization”. Apart from leaving the fairly obvious question begging about how your friends got there in the first place, the onus is on them to explain away the fact of millions of pseudo private ‘networks’ that people create within existing public platforms.

Closed user groups exist for the purposes of organising everything from amateur sports teams and weddings to full blown ideologically driven political rallies. The desire to firewall out central public access is obviously a key motivator for setting up private networks of contacts. In the cases where we join or ‘like’ them without knowing any existing members, it is precisely because we identify with the group ideology whether that be social network platform disintegration or some other cause. If there were a button that you could press when setting up a private group to “Prevent Facebook and everyone else except members seeing group messages”, it’s fairly obvious that many of us would use it.

Profit doesn’t motivate social networking

The MIT group would be right to point out that just because people want easy to use platforms that provide truly private networking capabilities it doesn’t follow that they will flock to them in droves just because they exist. In the context of PSN’s its impossible to replicate the model that financed the exponential growth of the global sort we suffer from today: Namely snooping for profit by advertisers. This argument is however as tautologous as pointing out that you can’t have meat in a vegetarian diet.

Commercial profit isn’t the ONLY reason that people create and use sophisticated software tools. If it were I wouldn’t be writing this on a free open source content management system, accessed with a free open source web browser on a PC running a Linux operating system. It may not be for everyone but some people are vegetarians and some people with the requisite skills will implement private social networking tools for their customers, friends and ideological comrades to use; provided they exist, work well and are free to use.

Might regulation drive uptake?

In the context of increasingly proscriptive intrusiveness by authority into the sphere of private publishing on public social networks, organisations might decide that public content published by their users is a liability. Might they also decide that what happens on their PSN is best off staying on the PSN and, that when it does leak, plausible deniability of responsibility is perhaps legally essential? Is it possible that the sense of exclusive belonging that membership of a private organisation’s social network bequeaths on a user turns out to create the sort of genuine loyalty that Mark Zuckerberg can’t even dream about?

We’ll see.


The MIT groups closing argument that social media platforms are hard for new users to navigate and that managing keys is difficult looks more like constructive criticism of extant designs than a reason to declare it can never happen.

Thanks for the input Chelsea, Neha and Ethan but we think you may have jumped to a conclusion based on questionable assumptions. Against the sweep of human history, the challenges to society at large presented by for profit corporate social network platform monopoly have arisen in the blink of an eye. The grown ups may be a bit slow but it’s premature to declare that no response is possible.




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