We've repeatedly sung the praises of Facebook cleanup extension F.B. Purity, but the future of that project looks deeply uncertain. That's disappointing for everyone, but it's also a reminder that developing software which is designed to modify or alter other products is always a slightly risky strategy.
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The developer of F.B. Purity wrote a detailed post on Facebook just before Christmas outlining an ongoing series of disputes with Facebook. The short version:
- Facebook had objected to the original name of the extension, Facebook Purity, but had agreed it could be called F.B. Purity (with F.B. being short for "fluff-busting". Now it wants F.B. removed from the name as well.
- Facebook says that the extension violates its terms of service, which forbid "interference with the way Facebook is rendered to its users" and require usage of specified APIs. As a result, it says it plans to shut down the Facebook Purity account and associated fan page. (That hasn't happened in the month since the original post.) It also appears that links to the F.B. Purity site posted on Facebook are automatically being redirected
The reader who pointed this out to us (thanks Anon!) questioned whether Facebook could legally tell an extension developer to stop working on their product, or redirect links on Facebook itself to the extension. The practical reality is that on its own site, Facebook can do what it likes. It might have difficulty enforcing a trademark over the letters FB, but it can do whatever it likes with the content of its site.
That's not to say that it isn't a churlish move. It is. But it's hardly a surprising one. Facebook has a very long history of altering its interface, and of ignoring the subsequent outcry from users who object. The fact that it has continued to grow while doing that must make a powerful argument for its founders that it can continue to do so.
Admittedly, there doesn't seem much that Facebook can do to stop development of browser extensions; it only controls the Facebook apps environment. But it can make life very difficult for the developer by restricting access. Cue an endless game of cat and mouse as new accounts get set up and disabled, APIs get renamed . . All a huge waste of everyone's time, but a likely scenario nonetheless.
One obvious parallel is with jailbreaking iOS. Apple clearly doesn't want anyone opening up the iOS environment, and the jailbreak community sees an equally clear benefit in doing so. Sometimes implementing a jailbreak is easy; sometimes it's very difficult (we haven't seen a full-blown, general purpose jailbreak for iOS 6 yet). Yet there's enough enthusiasm amongst developers for the project to continue despite formidable obstacles and a cashed-up opponent. F.B. Purity should be able to draw inspiration from that example.
There are elements of the F.B. Purity approach so far that strike me as unwise, particularly insisting on maintaining the name. Picking your battles is important. Changing the name to 'Social Purity' or would remove one major plank of Facebook's argument. Ultimately, product names don't matter as much as having a product that's effective: the vast majority of users don't care why Google is called Google or a Mac is called a Mac. If the extension solves a problem, people will find it. And if there is sufficient demand and enthusiasm, those tweaks will continue to flourish.
Obviously, we don't think it's a bad idea to work on customising tech to suit your needs. That's a large part of what Lifehacker is about. However, this situation is a reminder that getting that task done effectively depends on co-operation, whether that's finding fellow like-minded devs to help with your product or finding a way to co-operate with large corporations whose products you plan to mod. It also requires persistence and a certain amount of luck. And sometimes, if the target of your efforts responds by trying to block everything you do, your energies might be more profitably spent elsewhere.