Some weeks ago, your editor was invited to join the Orkut
service. Having never played with a
"friend of a friend" service before, your editor found the experience to be
naturally gratifying. After all, a system which inspires others to make
public declarations of friendship cannot fail to delight such a
stereotypical, socially challenged, geekish sort of person. It's nice to
know that somebody likes you after all, even if you can never aspire to the
triple-digit circles of friends that the truly cool people have.
That said, the free software community may want to think before committing
too much to services like Orkut. A good look at the Orkut terms of service would
be a place to start. It includes some relatively interesting things, such as
prohibitions on reverse engineering and even (surprising, for a
Google-affiliated site) indexing the site. The truly fun language,
By submitting, posting or displaying any Materials on or through
the orkut.com service, you automatically grant to us a worldwide,
non-exclusive, sublicenseable, transferable, royalty-free,
perpetual, irrevocable right to copy, distribute, create
derivative works of, publicly perform and display such Materials.
So this site which, among other things, is supposed to facilitate business
networking claims the right to make use of any idea which any user might
post there. These terms may seem familiar: Microsoft attempted to get
Passport users to agree to something similar three years ago. The company
backed down after a public outcry; so far, however, Orkut users have been
rather more accommodating.
There is a more fundamental question to be asked, however: if we, as a
community, really want to document our associations, interests, sexual
orientation, editor preferences, etc., do we really want to do so in
somebody else's proprietary database? Social networks seem like a field in
need of a great deal of experimentation; few people would claim that the
best ways to aggregate, represent, and work with such data have already
been worked out. If we're going to create a social network database, we
should be doing so in a public manner that will allow free software hackers
to play around with interesting new applications. We would almost
certainly be surprised at what they would come up with.
One effort worth looking at is the
FOAF Project. Rather than create a central, proprietary,
indexing-prohibited database, this project is pushing for a distributed
database built on individual RDF files. Such a scheme puts each
participant in charge of their own data while making the whole network
available for those who would create interesting interfaces to it.
This project shows one approach to the creation of social network databases
which avoids the problems of proprietary databases and restrictive terms of
use. Doubtless there are others out there as well. We, as a community, do
not need to put our time into the creation of somebody else's proprietary
database; we can do better than that.
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