Open vs. Fauxpen

by Doc Searls

Tristan Louis gives weight to new term that I like a lot: fauxpen. Faux in French means "false" or "fake". So fauxpen means fake open. There has always been a lot of that going around, but since the world of tech inevitably contains more of everything, there's more fauxpen stuff than ever.

In his post Tristan issues a fresh warning about some of what he calls "a venus flytrap of technology". His definitions:

  • Fauxpenness: Calling a system or platform open while it is, when more closely scrutinized, under the tight control of its provider.
  • Fauxpen system (or fauxpen platform): a system or platform that claims to be open but, upon closer examination, isn’t.

The term fauxpen has been around at least a few months. consists entierely of this text:

Main Entry: fauxpen source
Pronunciation: \fō-pən sȯrs\

Function: noun
Etymology: a term invented by Phil Marsosudiro at a dinner party in North Carolina
Date: 2 May 2009

A description of software that claims to be open source, but lacks the full freedoms required by the Open Source Definition.

synonyms: see open core, neo-proprietary

antonyms: see Linux kernel, Apache, OpenNMS

Tristan's scope of history goes back farther. Speaking of lock-in, he writes,

In 2006-2007, we saw that happen with SecondLife, as many developers (myself included) built software code that could run within the SecondLife world but was ultimately stuck there because you could not run it outside that world and/or run SecondLife servers on your own machines.

in 2007-2008, we saw that happen with the F8 Facebook platform, which locks your applications inside of Facebook and, while many developers have pushed to force the company to open up, tends to stay there. In 2007-today, we’re seeing the same thing with Twitter, which allows you to build whatever you want on top of it but doesn’t decentralize their approach, leaving developers potential slaves to the whims of the company. The same is true of the iPhone, which provides unusual access to the phone operating system and allows to develop interesting software on top of it but still keep developers away from being able to access basic things like calendar information via an SDK.

In fact it's been going on approximately forever. There is a propensity in human nature to be, as Walt Whitman perfectly put it, "demented with the mania of owning things". Think of Frodo at the top of Mount Doom, his mind corrupted by the power of the One Ring he was bound by oath to toss into the pool of lava in the mountain's caldera. Tossing it would free the world from the dark lord Sauron. Keeping it would corrupt the bearer and diminish to nothing the strength of free peoples. Frodo, as good a guy as ever lived in literature, succumbs. He is demented with the mania of owning the ring. (But yes, the ring is destroyed, anyway. Thus endeth this digression.)

Now we live in an age when evidence of openness' productive power abounds beyond the verge of ubiquity, it seems like every well-funded inventor of a popular new system still feels the need to force user dependency through proprietary lock-ins. As Tristan points out, we see this today with Twitter. To take metaphorical liberties with what Dave Winer has been writing about -- and working on -- lately, Twitter's One Ring is URL shortening. Staying locked into is a losing strategy for Twitter, Dave says. It's a single point of failure, like the o-ring on the Shuttle Challenger.

Dave's answers show up in How to fix URL shorterners, goes open source, community supported, and How to fix URL-shorteners, part II.

That last one includes real hacking, about which Dave concludes, "Bottom-line: I am now using URL-shorteners in a way that does not make the Internet suck". Open, not fauxpen.

In his post Tristan points back to Dave's Twitter as coral reef posting from more than two years ago, and a follow-up post from earlier this year, the two expressing Dave's initial embrace of twitter, and then his decision to break out of Twitter's lock-in. What Tristan misses (and I think this is just an oversight), is the work Dave and others (especially in / Laconica) have been doing to free microblogging (or whatever it is that Twitter does) from fauxpeness.

By the way, owning things is not bad. In fact, it can be very good. Without it, we wouldn't have a working economy, much less economic growth. But it's still not plain to most people, including many who one would think ought to know better, that opening up infrastructure is the best way to make money in the long run, because there's more on which to build one's tech and one's business. Here in 2009 hardly a week goes by when I don't hear somebody ask "How can you make money with something that's free?" The answer is, you make money because of it, not with it. How much money is being made today because of Linux? The sum is incalculable. Start with Google and Amazon and multiply from there.

Back to fauxpeness. Take a look at what Tristan says about "The API cycle". Yes, we do want APIs to be open and useful. But we also want independence and free agency for everybody in a given category's ecosystem. I fear that some APIs -- especially ones that lock us into dependency on commercial intermediaries that may fail -- are also a breed of fauxpen. And we'll learn big lessons about that as soon as some big commercial tree on which millons depend -- one with an "open API" -- fails to grow to the sky.

What do the rest of ya'll think?

To help with that, here's a bonus link from Adriana Lukas at The Mine! Project. And a bonus quote from that post: "What with FriendFeed selling out to Facebook, the less those of us who have been harping on about user autonomy, self-hosted or user-owned apps and technology look like online equivalent of survivalists."

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