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How dev.to could topple Facebook

ben profile image Ben Halpern Updated on ・5 min read

I wrote this as sort of a personal journal entry and didn't plan to share it, but with a growing demand for action, I felt like tossing these ideas out publicly.

There is a lot of anti-Facebook sentiment in the air. Of course, the recent wave has been due to Facebook's ongoing inability to tell the truth about important matters until their fraud and coverups are uncovered. But it’s also been part of a broader trend in worrying about Facebook’s flaws mixed with their utter dominance in the space.

I want to start by making it clear that our team isn’t distracted by delusions of grandeur. But, as a matter of describing the potential optionality of our current path, this article may serve as an interesting thought experiment about the tech climate.


If you're a member or casual visitor of this website, dev.to, you might be able to see some similarities between our platform and Facebook. It has a news feed and there is a focus on connections and friendship. It's a social and/or professional network.

It's also different from Facebook in a lot of ways. It's only for software developers, it's built on the open web—rather than being a walled garden, and most importantly, it's a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of Facebook’s size.

So, even though it's silly to even contemplate, I do spend time thinking about how and why it's important to harbor visions of making a dent in Facebook's space. The "why" is easy for me. Facebook has consistently made morally questionable decisions. At best Facebook is an inevitable result of power and scale. At worst it is a cold, evil company, with operators and investors who have routinely demonstrated an indifference to the harm they may be causing.

I started dev.to without Facebook in mind. I wanted to help host good technical writing and discussions in an environment that encouraged constructive and respectful dialogue. That's still the goal. But, if you'll entertain me, I'd like to talk about this Facebook thing.

As I mentioned, in form factor, what we've built is Facebook-esque. We'll gladly copy the good parts of any social network. But here’s where it gets interesting: we are currently working on opening up our core codebase to the world as an open source project. We want to do this for a number of reasons.

  • Open source code improves over time, while closed source code decays. Decaying code is expensive and causes engineering expenses to soar.
  • Enthusiastic members have been asking for this big-time. The community is excited to help, and we have learned time and again how giving more control to the community has benefitted us.
  • We're romantically attached to the story of Linux coming to dominate the operating system space, and the multitude of improbable open source accomplishments that no longer seem all that improbable.
  • Our core business model—running a community for software developers and making money through memberships and sponsorships—doesn't require us to hoard our code.
  • We want users to have a full picture of all the data the site keeps on them in order serve them. We don't really keep all that much data, but from a technical perspective, the simplest way to be transparent is to open the operation up for inspection.

As an aside — if you've followed the project along, you might be frustrated that I've been talking about this for a while. It's true—in the rigor of actually growing our community and keeping our operation afloat, we have consistently pushed back our efforts to open source. And I'm not here to announce anything different. We are, in fact, moving closer and not further, but we have not yet had the time to devote the final push to opening up the code.

The only true blocker as we see it is a thorough security audit. We still have some documentation shortcomings and onboarding pain-points to be worked out, but we could overcome those in the open. Open source code is ultimately much more secure than its closed counterpart because its issues are shallow, but in getting to the point of letting our code breath, we need to be careful.

But back to Facebook. We have no plans on expanding the scope of dev.to. It's perfectly wonderful to have an area to talk technical and to portray our career or career-adjacent selves in our full light. But we’ve seen a strong trend that other groups are interested in propping up their own community instances, based around whatever premises they want.

If and when that happens, dev.to gets to exist as a single (hopefully important) node in an ecosystem of compatible, but individualized, social apps.

Ah the promise of decentralization. Dreamers like me have been selling these magic beans for as long as I've been an observer. That's why I mostly keep my head down and plug away on dev.to features. Techno-utopian I am not. Decentralization is treated like a silver bullet, and people treat trust like it was invented as a blockchain concept. Our group rallies around the difficulties of social nuance and plugs away at the challenge of growing community and ethically operating a business that supports it. The "technically-ideal" solution seems to do a poor job accounting for the social nuances of being human. Technical vision and expertise is critical, but so is empathy, diplomacy, regulation, policy, and so forth.

So that's how we topple Facebook. Not alone, but maybe together. I don't think our odds are all that good, but it's fun to keep the vision in the back of our minds. If you are interested in finding out how you can chip in, you can fill out this form to join us as we gradually let folks in to contribute to the code. Please don't expect anything to move all that quickly. You'll need patience. We have much more of a "Steadily figure things out and be thoughtful along the way" attitude than the "Move fast and break things" phrase coined by some company of note.

By the way—Facebook comes to mind as the greatest example of a shadowy giant that deserves as much challenge as they can get, but I can't say there is a major player in the social space with a clean slate. Twitter has consistently demonstrated a valueless indifference towards harassment and a tolerance of hate and misuse. LinkedIn has relied on dark patterns and has generally taken the position of sucking value out of its market leadership while struggling to provide truly useful features over its relatively long life.

I know wonderful people who work at all of these companies and recognize the how drawing moral lines is a fool's errand sometimes. I have no problem being critical, but I also turn to building as an outlet moreso than writing. Code is my super power for change (big or small) and it's been doing me well so far. I'm excited to keep plugging away. Thanks for reading.

Discussion

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belhassen07 profile image
Belhassen Chelbi

I feel like dev.to is open source already. Maybe not the codebase but the spirit, you guys are making the web better with the experience you provide: fast and personal.
Even the form you provided is easy to use and fun.
this site, it's like a personal , close to the heart Indie game.
and don't hesitate to share anything, we appreciate what you share :)
I'm learning a lot from you :)

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ben profile image
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diogomqbm_ profile image
Diogo Mafra

Code is my super power for change (big or small) and it's been doing me well so far.

That's it!

Completely agree with you about Facebook situation, you're the first to approach this without being aggressive.

Thank you for being such an inspiring person!

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ben profile image
Ben Halpern Author

Thanks for the kind words!

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peter profile image
Peter Kim Frank

Not alone, but maybe together.

Thanks for being a part of this wonderful community. If you'd like to join our open source efforts, please do fill out the form that Ben mentioned 🙌🏽

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ben profile image
Ben Halpern Author

Yeah, and as mentioned, we might be moving at too slow a pace on this for some, but yes, we are starting the process of inviting in folks for the audit or are interested in helping in any way.

Our core app is built on Rails and that's where most of the security questions will come up. Folks with experience in this area are most helpful. First timers are super welcome to fill out the form too. Diversity of skillsets is definitely an asset.

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nektro profile image
Meghan (she/her)

The "technically-ideal" solution seems to do a poor job accounting for the social nuances of being human.

A top highlight and very true. Thanks again for your work and everything you do with dev.to to make it the place it is. (And the whole @staff)

but I can't say there is a major player in the social space with a clean slate

I've noticed this too, and I have to wonder, is it an inevitable side effect of that scale or something else? Adding on, YouTube continually puts its advertisers and what it sees as competition over the community and its creators. As for Reddit, "...I found that the admins nearly always chose a policy of inaction on potentially controversial problems...". And more.

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ben profile image
Ben Halpern Author

If not inevitable, it's a big issue with scale. Dunbar's number is an interesting concept.

On the other hand. It is incredibly clear that many of the current platforms focused on scaling above everything else. For whatever it's worth, we've always passed up the opportunity to get "engagement" at the cost of maintaining a constructive outlook. I imagine this will get harder with time but I really feel like this was a major blindspot early on for many.

I really feel like I/we would have fallen victim to a lot of this were it our first business, but the fact that this was not that and that it grew very naturally from my own side project allowed us to really put the stamp on some values. We have to change courses on previous ideals along the way, but we get the benefit of trying not to be like the things we don't like elsewhere. It's the inherent benefit of being newer.

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okolbay profile image
andrew

do you think openspurcing facebook codebase would make it clearer on how they treat data? I mean they would have to openspurce all their data pipelines configuration, not only code of website )

kudos for running dev.to, even though I was considered a rather agressive member (because of my php hate )))
I like this community and culture.

on a personal note - I’ve abandoned my fb profile some time ago and focused on collecting information sources, or joining communities “in the wild” web, because I remember forums of web1.0 before social networks. someone here might remember BBS ))
but for people who grew up with fb feed being their entry-point to web, it would be hard to give it up

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Ravi Krishnappa

I am going away from FB and have not even logged-in for months. But I switched to Telegram, Signal, dev.to and Reddit kind of non-intrusive social platforms. Curious to know whether you are back in FB now or you have joined better platforms.

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cathodion profile image
Dustin King

I don't think the Facebook-killer will be an app for individual communities. I think open sourcing dev.to is a great idea, but there are already Reddit and phpBB for people who want to start communities. (It might kill Medium though, as its design seems to encourage writing articles, not just posts.) It seems to me that Facebook's bread and butter is that it's a way to keep in touch with your family and old friends. That's not a "community" in the online sense, it's something else.

The other thing about trying to kill Facebook is that whoever wants to do it shouldn't take VC money. The VC model encourages explosive growth at the expense of stability or ethics. And if you grow big enough to threaten Facebook, either you become the new Facebook (with all the bad that entails) or you get acquired by Facebook.

What's the alternative? A centralized nonprofit, like Wikimedia but for social? Mumble mumble blockchain like Steemit? I don't know. Maybe something built upon e-mail, because everybody already has it, but then you have to compete with GMail.

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cathodion profile image
Dustin King

I should add that I mainly consume dev.to through twitter, so I could have a completely skewed view of its social features.

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ben profile image
Ben Halpern Author

I think you're pretty on point. I think there is nuanced ways I could counter a bit of what you said, but I don't think that's necessary. Our outlook is that we're building something useful regardless of how you consume it and a business that can either grow big or stay small-to-medium and have each path be perfectly fine.

Of course, thanks for being a continued reader of the great stuff the community is producing Dustin.

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cathodion profile image
Dustin King

Sorry if that was too negative. To be fair, nobody knew Facebook was going to be the MySpace-killer.

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qm3ster profile image
Mihail Malo

I worry that such projects can never make a dent in Facebook because from their very premise they embody moral zealotry.
You can't have an app comparably or more habit-forming for our reptile brains than Facebook without engaging in more than a few of what was relegated to be called "dark patterns".

  • It has to bother us many times per day, at random but somewhat consistent intervals, with random reward.
  • Further than than, it may even have to give us the fear of missing out to engage people in a timely manner and not in batch fashion at our leisure.
  • It has to convert focused passing visits into longer bouts of mindless consumption.
  • The content has to engage users emotionally, not just intellectually. In addition to anger, lust and gluttony are pretty effective.
  • It has to appeal to the users' self-esteem, with meaningless non-constructive popularity metrics.

Should it refuse to do any of these, it is losing further footing against a platform that everyone is already on. The absolute majority of people have no conscious control over their habits, and ain't nobody on a global scale using a Pavlok or other shock collar to get them off Facebook and onto a competing platform.

What CAN be improved, to give it an advantage, is twofold:

1. Politics and censorship

The censorship is straightforward: Facebook's deletion or shadow-banning(hiding) of content is done to cover Facebook's ass legally. If it was for a more pleasant experience for the viewers, there would be options to view this content, hide it until clicked on, or hide it entirely. Furthermore, the posters of the "offensive" content would be catered to, not banned from liking posts and even messaging their consenting long-time friends(and businesses, too) for several days at a time with extreme prejudice. A most ridiculous policy.

The other component is the echo chamber effect, the siloing of opinions. Of course deeply unethical, it may be percieved to improve user experience by presenting content users agree with. I feel like that is a deception, caused by a misoptimisation - Just because we didn't like something or comment on something doesn't mean we didn't have a visceral reaction. Clicking on links and sharing links to posts in messenger should definitely affect post relevance.
Maybe also throw in a popular post from an opposing demographic.

2. Technical aspect

There is a lot of low hanging fruit here.
From performance, feature parity between platforms, and data usage, to features like corellating multiple uploads of the same image, including screenshots and better search.

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Guney Ozsan

I'm pretty new here but I feel that dev.to is bringing back the open spirit of forums in early 2000's. Unfortunately many communities are stuck within Facebook groups with limited usability and zero history.

I think the main problem is we use Facebook as a hub to check our feed, and interact with whatever it throws in front of us. Sometimes it shows more of some other group that I'm a member of, and I find myself hanging out with that society and forget other groups (plus people and subjects in them) for a while. That's a pretty passive social life that you get dragged with the stream.

Ah, the guys at Codeingame are also doing a pretty good job gathering a community like this, even with a narrower audience than dev.to. And people moving to discord from Facebook groups as an alternative social platform is also another case that shows that we now need such alternative platforms.

I wish luck in your case:)

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Pat Walls

I love to hear founders actually say stuff like this. Many are thinking it and having these goals, but afraid to share it.

As Facebook usage deteriorates, so will their communities (particularly Facebook groups) and come to places like dev.to. Very exciting for micro-communities all around the web.

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Benjamin N. Spak

🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥

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Richard Schloss

I like the DEV.to party. I just wish I knew about it sooner, I feel like I'm super late to the party.

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vicoerv profile image
Vico

am i too late for being a contributor? 🥺

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Jochem Stoel

Yeah I could beat Google with my WordPress search function but I am not really distracted by delusions of grandeur.