UsBook: Toward a family-friendly Facebook alternative to preserve your memories and help future historians–while respecting privacy

facebook privacy article imageThe Digital Public Library of American is still on track to be a mostly academic creature despite the P word in its name. Consider the breakdown of attendees at last month’s DPLAfest, not just the speakers lists and the scholarly and technical topics that predominated.

Of the 750+ people at this worthy and well-promoted event, just 50 were from public libraries and a mere two dozen from school libraries, and the nine-member DPLA board still lacks any current small-town librarians or school librarians. Even if the board adds them, others will set the tone. The astute thoughts of Jim Duncan, executive director of the Colorado Library Consortium, still hold true. Like me, he very much wants the DPLA to thrive. With proper focus, it can be a world-class academic digital library system, as opposed to siphoning off badly needed resources and other forms of support from public librarians who should be forming their own e-system. Tellingly, a Google search of the DPLA site as of this writing reveals just three DPLA-originated documents mentioning the phrase “family literacy,” and I myself was responsible for two of those references (here and here).

Does this mean that upper-level academics shouldn’t grow much closer to the public and school libraries and shouldn’t enrich their collections and help upgrade their technology? Absolutely not. We’ve already talked about overlapping boards for the public and academic systems, a shared online catalog for users preferring one, the creation of a common technical services organization, and shared infrastructure that could respond to the needs of the national public and academic systems supporting the technical side. Jim Duncan is understandably a huge fan of the DPLA’s existing initiatives to help local libraries and museums digitize items in their collections, efforts that could be folded into the technical services organization with far, far more resources available. He and I are simply distinguishing between technology (where unification would help) and such crucial matters as book-acquisition policies at the system level (where the academics and likeminded people stand a good chance of eventually overruling public librarians, given the hierarchal nature of the library world and the hostility of many in the elite toward mass culture).

And now here’s a reminder of a related possibility for public-academic collaboration, already mentioned on the LibraryCity site–a family-and-consumer-friendly Facebook alternative that would reliably preserve our memories and help future historians and genealogists while respecting privacy.

Call the alternative UsBook to show that it would exist for us as humans and citizens, rather than for marketers and Wall Street, and that it would help promote reading and culture and learning in general. I use the term “citizens” loosely since I can even envision international expansion of this social network to receptive countries, especially those with their own digital library systems. I have just bought the domain to guarantee its availability for the public’s benefit at no charge to the proposed joint technical services organization, and as another choice, I’ve also purchased Nothing against free enterprise or libraries’ own use of Facebook and other commercial social media–just the contrary! Let’s just remember the pros and cons of different business models. So, no, this new social network would not replace the current Facebook for those wanting to use it, and it might even reduce regulatory pressures on Mark Zuckerberg’s empire since people could more easily look elsewhere. But UsBook or whatever we called it would:

  1. Offer a far, far more child- and family-friendly environment than does the current Facebook. Children could log on without facing an onslaught of advertising, and many of the promoted areas could be book-related or otherwise use interactivity to foster learning. Privacy policies and procedures for safeguarding yourself would not constantly shift; consider the the latest chicanery in this respect from the real Facebook, including the loosening of protections for teenagers. Simply put, the current Facebook, despite its many positives, is not nearly as accommodating toward children and families as it could be. John Palfrey, chair of the DPLA, is a leading expert on social networking for young people and undoubtedly would be a valuable source of advice here. All the more reason for him to serve on the overlapping board of a public system, along with Dan Cohen, the DPLA’s likewise able executive director! John is highly familiar with the use of education and parental guidance to promote socially acceptable behavior. A Palfrey-style approach, outlined in Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives, would stand far better chances of success on UsBook than on Facebook, with all the commercial pressures tugging in the opposite direction (caveat: I’d like to see less reliance on “corporate social responsibility,” given the mixed record of the market alone in correcting transgressions).

  2. Reliably preserve information in context (with the related privacy policies and procedures optimized for users rather than advertisers, even though there could still be links to newspaper sites and others supported by ads). My friend Robert Nagel, a writer-editor in Houston, has documented Facebook’s sloppy preservation or non preservation of Web links originated by users. Of course, the more content on the servers of the UsBook itself for reliable external and internal linking, the better. Think of the treasure trove for historians and genealogists–the words, sounds, and images that UsBook would preserve as a matter of course from consenting users. Storage and bandwidth costs keep coming down, and people able to afford it could be charged a small fee by the technical services organization running this social network. Even personal blogs could be archived through mirroring and otherwise. So, for that matter, could personal libraries to hand down to children, at least within the limits of contractual arrangements and copyright law (ideally to be reformed).

  3. Increase the effectiveness of local libraries. UsBook could promote their content and services–both the traditional and virtual kinds–and among other things help them reduce the social isolation of many elderly people. Libraries could encourage hardware and software vendors to create products with seamless UsBook interfaces, which along the way promoted book-reading as well.

  4. Include areas for institutions of higher education and faculty members to reach out to the general public. I use the term “area” casually. If well done, such content would go viral truly be a part of the fabric of UsBook and the Web as a whole.

  5. Provide user identification and log-in services for reputable Web sites to offer people who didn’t want to entangle themselves further with Facebook and other commercial services. One possible revenue stream for the technical services organization?

As for the other domain possibility,, its name is close to that of a much-diminished UseNet, the old series of discussion groups, and that’s fine by me, given all the good content and all the community activities that appeared there before spammers, porn hucksters, perpetual trolls, and others ruined the show. From the start, by way of terms of service and otherwise, UsNet or UsBook would exercise precautions. Don’t censor the Internet as a whole. But just as we have parks intended for recreation, not commerce, shouldn’t the Net have marketer-free zones, with some flexibility allowed for, say, local small businesses or young entrepreneurs, not just nonprofits?

Let’s hope that the DPLA will show open-mindedness here, drop the P word, and sharpen its academic focus while teaming up with a separate public library system on the technical services organization and other collaborations (to which powerful and prestigious academic could contribute brainpower without the future risk of gentrification of our public libraries).

Hew to mission, and much more money for academics will come from both public and private sources–both directly and through the technical services organization building on the DPLA’s excellent hub strategy. I can also envision some nice piles of cash coming from public libraries for creation of new content if the academics can provide the right kind. So far, the DPLA has shown more interest in older public domain books–valuable in their own way, of course–than in the current variety that most public library patrons favor. DPLA people have promised to pay more attention in the future to original copyrighted materials. I’ll applaud that if it happens despite all the delays so far! But even if it does, public libraries and the taxpayers supporting them deserve their own national digital system, respectful of local and state autonomy, to forestall the risk of an academic-dominated system letting the priorities of researchers trump those of typical library patrons.

Editor’s note – this article was re-published with the author’s permission from his blog, Library City.

Note: Please see the subsequent comment and response below.

ROBERT NAGLE – November 6, 2013 at 4:25 pm • Reply I could imagine a city library picking some kind of open source social engagement/community software and integrating it into the library experience. It would perform a useful service if it could be more consumer-friendly and open about archiving personal data (photos, audio, video) and if it had a defined data export policy. Maybe it could be integrated into volunteer services, facility reservation and event organizing.

Here’s the thing. Open source tends to lag commercial software in features (usually by 1 or 2 years) So whatever solution a library might adopt would always seem a few years behind the curve than what CNN and other places are talking about. Mindshare would be a problem. Even though they ultimately don’t have our best interests at heart, these huge IT companies have the resources and incentive to deliver a sleek product and to promote it; I suspect any nonprofit counterpart might seem wimpy in comparison. Also, FB is a pretty good deal considering it’s free; maybe libraries can simply buy memberships to established services and render them noncommercial. Wouldn’t FB be cool without the advertising and upselling?

I personally would love to see an open-source version of Facebook/Google Plus — especially one which is customized for certain interests. (literary, sports, parenting, etc). Or it might be kind of fun to have a social network specifically for a city or state. I think the trick is choosing some social networking functions which are unglamorous but necessary which the big companies are no longer interested in ( (like photo hosting, bookmark preservation, event planning).

Another problem I could foresee is that preserving digital data is not exactly a core competency for a city librarian. They could be trained to become moderators and trainers though.

Intriguing idea overall.

DAVID ROTHMAN November 6, 2013 at 6:00 pm • Reply Excellent assessment of the challenges, Robert – and exactly why I think libraries need to pool their resources in this area so they could be competitive! Also keep in mind that it isn’t the technology alone that draws people to social media. Even more, it’s the community, the chance to be social. What’s more, UsBook could be tightly integrated with the actual library collections. Meanwhile, yes, as I made clear, I believe that libraries should continue to maintain presences on Facebook and elsewhere, and in fact they could use them as gateways to their own social media, not just to their collections. The so-called competition could actually be among the best engagement tools to draw people into UsBook. As for other sources of mindshare, keep in mind that well over half of the American adults carry library cards – on which could be printed the address of UsBook. Not to mention the potential of in-library promo. Thanks for some great thoughts. David

Addendum: In the above comments, I should also have mentioned the very situation you wrote about in your excellent blog post—the lack of permanence of content in commercial social networks. In that respect, UsNet could be a welcome alternative.

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