Starting over

Hi there.

I’m not sure how many people are familiar with the story, but in 2003 I started working on something called The Universal Face Book (or The Facebook for short) as part of a student club-run portal at Harvard called houseSYSTEM. Mark Zuckerberg signed up and we had dinner on January 8, 2004, three days before he bought the domain name The rest, as they say, is history. If you’re interested, I’ve posted some more background on Reddit, which you can find here:

houseSYSTEM’s Facebook never really took off the way that Mark’s did, and there are a variety of reasons for that. Mostly, I was a lot more concerned about privacy issues than Mark was. Starting almost immediately, I found myself on the defense as Mark’s product started growing, and in my view, borrowing features from what I had built. For a while, I tried to stay friendly, but I drew the line at a security issue that involved the exposure of exported friend lists, which didn’t get fixed nearly fast enough.

As one might imagine, the idea of building something new to compete with Facebook has occurred to me over the years. I thought about it in 2006, but there was essentially no demand for such a product, and I had no idea what to really build. Now, twelve years later, there is clearly demand. I more or less know what I’d want to build. The question is whether it’s even worth building.

There’s definitely some value in being able to share information with friends and family, and I have some ideas about ways to improve that process and keep it secure and reasonable. I even have some code written—actually, a lot of code, but not nearly enough to compete with a Valley tech company at scale. What I worry about is building another product that inevitably shifts toward use for trivial and potentially harmful purposes. Perhaps it’s not for anyone, myself included, to judge what constitutes “trivial” (I’m thinking cat videos), but certainly it is clear that social media has done a lot of harm in the past few years alone. I’d like to avoid contributing to that. Doing nothing is an option that satisfies that goal, but ceding the ground to Mark doesn’t seem like the best way to ensure things get better, either.

I’d be interested in any thoughts the community might have along these lines. Clearly many, many people are upset with Facebook and would prefer a new place to go run by a more responsible group of individuals, but is such a platform even possible to build responsibly at any kind of meaningful scale? Are there certain subtle differences that could give people better incentives to use technology responsibly and keep out those who refuse to? For this hypothetical product, assume a $9.99 per month cancel-anytime pricing scheme, similar to Netflix.

Thanks, and it would be great to hear what people have to say.



Interesting history thanks for sharing. My biggest question would be what are the goals? To fix something that is broken by starting something new. Theoretically and ethically letting something die or be left to die is the natural course of action. So that leaves goal development and what is the reason for developing something. Consider thinking of that idea you had years ago and imagine it in a different context with everything we’ve learned. You have to decide where your passions are related to this unique experience of watching something get out of control when you knew the pitfalls.

My guess is you have something important, a message to get out there about what you’ve learned- and you need to figure out how to express this- through a product or book telling a story that fighting for what is right and exposing the truth is worth it (in a general sense and weaving in what you knew- a philosophical context and not making something wrong). It must be isolating to know what you do and see the world unfold into a social mess. Developing a product isn’t the only way to express important messages to the world. But maybe that is where your gifts lie- or your perspective?

Seek solitude in nature and bring a notebook and pen just in case. It’s amazing what will come to mind with no influences or buzz. Pardon me if I’m way off here…


I think if you have in mind that can compete with FB and is complete opposite to FB then go for it. If is subscription business model and viable why not build it. If it is good people will keep coming. We need alternatives badly to stimulate competition. Competition is good to end user.

hi Aaron,

Thank you for sharing your story. In my opinion, the problem is with ‘scale’, I don’t think it is possible to build a product serving users’ best interests at scale, the way Silicon Valley currently does it at least. seems to be an interesting model to look at

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Solid questions. I attended Harvard in 2004 and was in on the early buzz related to FBs availability to the grad schools.

Overall, I’d suggest the answer to your question lies with the user. Are a sufficient number of possible users “fed up enough” with the current system of trading personal data for access to transition from a system in which they seemingly give nothing (but invisible personal data) in exchange for something to a system in which they give something very concrete - a few dollars per month - for the same?

There is some good news. For example, news organizations’ transition to digital delivery (NY Times and WSJ for example) and their more recent profit increases indicate that user populations will pay for access, and that the tide of “everything as free” is turning.

On the other, bet that quite a few startups will burn before people pay for social services that heretofore have not required payment.

Finally, I’d suggest starting with tiny code. What’s the least amount of code that might replicate the simplest and most useful features people desire in connecting with others through digitally-mediated interfaces? In an explicit “no-data shared” scenario, will people pay for that access?

Ultimately, one can’t control whether (or not) cat videos are shared through those means. In fact, humans have always traded cat videos, or found other drivel to fill their down-time. Who am I to judge that my reading of Spencer is more valuable? With that said, the goal of increasing privacy and simplicity, and building a respectful technology, is helpful. What do the users say?


What makes building it “worth” it?

I’m anything but an expert on this, but while following the discussions about recent movements in tech I sometimes get the impression, that social media alternatives are only considered viable if they can compete with the giants. Greenwashed facebook clones are popping up everywhere trying to profit from the latest concerns with social media in mainstream news, but they compete in the same washed-up game that hasn’t gotten us anywhere. This is just trying to outrun the lost.
Maybe this is a naive way to look at it, but I think the goal should be to put something out there that has good potential to accomplish what you think would be the ideal platform (ideal in a sense of what we as human beings may actually need, not what can be the next big thing). If you miss out on 80% of the average user base because your utopia doesn’t cater to trivial and potentially harmful purposes, so be it. (Similar thing: I think it’s very important that there is a messenger that is perfectly encrypted and secure, even though only a handful of my friends will ever use it.)

Just some thoughts: What if a small scale turns out to be the only meaningful? Does all of humanity really have to be friends on the same weird ass platform? What if all we needed was something to bring together small communities, friend circles or interest groups, and then maybe at most connect the groups to each other? Maybe not. Maybe it’s completely decentralized, maybe it’s 9,99$ a month, maybe it’s an open source tool that everyone is free to download and use. Maybe there is no like button? Maybe you get a lifetime ban if you repeatedly violate the terms of service, because fuck those guys? ^^ Maybe your friend list is limited to 150 people because you don’t talk to the rest anyway? Maybe we don’t actually need to know what everyone has been up to lately? Maybe there is not even a mobile version. I mean, why should there be one? I’m rambling, but I hope you get, what I’m trying to get across.

Looking forward to hear what you have in mind.


Great story. But actually I think it really is our place to judge. That’s what thinking people do, and why the term “discriminating person” has always been a high compliment.

We don’t need another indiscriminate network. Greenwashing Facebook is like trying to polish trash. Social media is wasting people’s time and making them depressed, but also has informative value.

Why not try a network with editors and strict rules? Where everything is edited and organised, and nobody is allowed to post selfies or to show off. No more wasting other people’s time, only beautiful groups of real people and print-quality content. It will be small, but it won’t be disposable.

If only life could be like this for real- the fallicy of making life exactly the way we want it.

I’m very interested in what you’re thinking about and so thought I’d reply. First, I’ll say that I got off of Facebook permanently in November 2016 and have found the experience of doing so fascinating. The reasons I got off FB (and all social media) because I had a deep feeling of concern about what social media actually is and how it was contributing to our ever and ever more shrill and polarized discourse. Since then I’ve learned a LOT about these topics - the idea of social media ss attention merchants and as a surveillance machine with a thin veneer of “community” - and I’ve learned about propogranda bots and cyerwarfare (see Timothy Snyder, The Road to Unfreedom). I’ve also learned how hard it is to convey this to friends - mostly highly educated liberals - who don’t see the implications and don’t believe THEY are being gamed or manipulated - who believe that they’re too smart or educated to be played, and that they’re using FB only to see photos of family, grandkids…yada yada yada.

I don’t miss FB at all, though I wish I had some of the functionality but would never again trade my privacy and attention - and our democracy - for that model. I would be more than happy to pay for access to a site a la Netflix. In fact, I’d join and pay even if I didn’t use it, because I really believe we need alternatives that are not built on selling our attention and our information to the highest bidder, an that don’t use applied neuroscience and psychology of gambling against us.

I would add that I am a part of a social media like site of over 20k people that shows me what IS possible. It is not paid for by us but by foundations - though again, I’d be happy to pay - and it is moderated, has lots of functionality - it proves to me, on a small scale, that this IS possible, with a site that is either nonprofit or subscription based. This site is on a particular public health topic, but that’s just in this instance.

I believe that if there was an alternative it would be easier to persuade people to consider what they’re supporting and what they’re paying for what appears to be free (as in, if it’s free, you’re the product).

I hope you’ll keep us posted in this community about your thinking and plans.

We’re not talking about life here, we’re talking about the opposite of life which is the internet. :slight_smile:

I wasn’t talking about social media at all but a different kind of network very loosely defined. Right now the focus is on quantity, all I’m suggesting is instead a focus on quality.

That may sound foolish until you realise that technology users’ expectations are always changing very quickly. We worry about Facebook, but Facebook has been on its way down for over 5 years already in the United States according to Google trends.

Facebook’s decline is already history, and trends have a tendency to continue. It happens to all tech products, and something new will always come even if at first new things seem like a “fallicy” of making things the way we want them to be. But isn’t that how all new products are born?

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