Federated walled gardens – do they offer a way to appropriate the online privacy? @downes @benwerd

More thoughts arising from Stephen Downes digest of the current Facebook privacy brouhaha (http://www.downes.ca/cgi-bin/page.cgi?post=52445). Ben Werdmuller von Elgg suggests that certain kinds of organisation: educational, corporate/commercial, and probably – implicitly – military/security are walled gardens which nevertheless require – or strongly desire – the social networking functionality of systems like Facebook. But, they also require reasonably secure privacy for various reasons. And many of us might want such privacy, whether we require it or not. Ben argues, rightly IMO, that this was the model that drove the adoption of federated email in the '80s. He speculates that should there be a challenge to the hegemony of Facebook, it might emerge from such organisations (http://www.downes.ca/cgi-bin/page.cgi?post=52446).

Federated walled gardens – community gardens (http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/events/luncheon/2009/10/goodman) is an interesting model. The UK access federation (http://www.ukfederation.org.uk/) – were it not aimed to protect publishers' and universities' privileged access to markets – provides one example. Some people defend VLEs because they provide such "safe spaces" (e.g. Michael Seery http://michaelseery.com/home/index.php/2010/04/vles-are-they-dead-or-not/ James Clay http://elearningstuff.wordpress.com/category/100-ways/). The problem with such federations is that they, as yet, have insufficiently porous boundaries. You are in or you are out. There needs to be a means for members of any federation to let others from other federations to connect to them without that thereby giving access to all the other members of the federation. Would there still need to be a few "Pirate Bays" (http://thepiratebay.org/) to act as hubs? Profile directories? How would widely distributed databases of private information work in such a scenario? Facebook works well as a hub because "everyone" is there. One of the things that I liked about Diaspora (http://www.joindiaspora.com/) – still under the radar of its hype – is that they do not reject Facebook, but see it as simply a node, a federation, in a wider vision of federated social networking. A problem with the "old" Internet was that, despite the egalitarian ideology of the pioneers, it was an elite network. But, like TV in the '50s, when comm tech goes massive, the common mass (i.e. all of us) get exploited by new elites without an egalitarian ideology. This is the real dilemma of the commons, or as Žižek would have it, the communist hypothesis.

Ultimately @downes is right: critical literacy is the only "answer" (Facebook and, sadly, 4chan http://www.4chan.org/ are still posing the questions from two different perspectives). But, having worked in and around community development education for 25 years, the resilience and creativity of the powerful is awesome (and I do not use that word with sophomoric casuallness, viz Facebook), and the subjugation of the excluded would-be consumer so effectively accomplished, that at times I feel like retreating to some monastary (another walled garden) to stare at my navel and weep. Time to take a deep breath and plunge back into the estates on the margins. Because, while I might prefer to live in a communist utopia, I do not want to withdraw from the world to do so. I want to retain doubt and scepticism of even my own position. I want to hang out with my friends arguing many points, wherever they may choose to federate, and I want to be able to invite them back to mine. I want public spaces, private spaces (both commercial and personal) and all the spaces in between.

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