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Diaspora and future social networks: decentralized, open-sourced?

Diaspora and future social networks: decentralized, open-sourced?

It has been about a year now since Diaspora and its four founders made ripples through the blogosphere and mainstream media, including in this New York Times article, following the $200,000 plus donations that the budding alternative social networking site received through crowd-funding site Kickstarter.

Haven't heard of Diaspora?

Simply put, the website aims to provide the functionality and offerings of existing social networks (namely Facebook), minus the loss of privacy and personal information for its users.

"With Diaspora, we are reclaiming our data, securing our social connections, and making it easy to share on your own terms. We think we can replace today's centralized social web with a more secure and convenient decentralized network," declared the founders on their Kickstarter page.

Users' information, instead of being submitted to (and, in accordance with user agreements, thus essentially becoming owned by) a central hub, such as on Facebook, will be hosted on "seeds," user-specific servers that store their information and make it available only to friends of their choice. Different categories of contacts can be tailored into different groups called "Aspects," enabling users to segment and control distribution of content to their different groups of friends, such as co-workers, or family. Users will also have the possibility to host content on their own secure servers, as well as be in full control of their personal information and privacy settings.

Founded by four New York University students (Ilya Zhitomirskiy, Dan Grippi, Max Salzberg, and Raphael Sofaer, who are now based in San Francisco, as some of them have graduated, the others are taking time off from college to work on the project fulltime), Diaspora is open-source: in addition to the four founders and five other core contributors, there are at least a few dozen developers who regularly contribute to help improve and debug the website, currently in private Alpha. The project has been among the top 5 on GitHub, a crowd-sourcing site for developers.

Additionally, Diaspora's roughly 25,000 users are encouraged to provide feedback during this phase of development.

Hundreds of thousands of others have been waitlisted, according to Yosem Companys, Diaspora's self-described "non-tech consigliere." The next phases of development will include open Alpha, Beta, and advanced Beta - before Diaspora is launched, hopefully, later this year.

Could Diaspora eventually aspire to rival the likes of Facebook?

Considering Diaspora is still in its development stages, as well as Facebook's increasingly crushing dominance in the market (check out these 2 graphs to see some of Facebook's, and Twitter's, impressive usage numbers), any speculation on that subject would be just that - speculation.

But it's fair to say, as illustrated by Diaspora's success on Kickstarter (the founders had initially hoped to raise $10,000, far from the $200,000 they pooled from nearly 6,500 backers), as well as by the lingering controversy that has surrounded Facebook privacy and ownership settings in the past - see this Mashable article or click the image for some history - that there is demand for a more user-centric, privacy-aware, social network.

It may be worthy to note, in that respect, that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg personally made a donation to Diaspora through Kickstarter - "Openness" is indeed among Zuckerberg's declared interests on his Facebook profile.

Perhaps, as Companys said, it's best not to think of Diaspora as "a threat to other social networks" since it will be inter-operable with other platforms. Yet, clearly, the intent of the site is to provide a viable and user-friendlier alternative to the current offerings.

"When you give up that data, you're giving it up forever," said Salzberg, one of Diaspora's co-founders, in the Times. "The value they give us is negligible in the scale of what they are doing, and what we are giving up is all of our privacy."

However, other such attempts have failed in the past.

"We will have to see how widely this will be adopted by the non-nerds," said Finn Brunton, a teacher and digital media researcher at NYU, in the same article. "But I don't know a single person in the geek demographic who is not freaked out" by large social networks and the (private) centralization of user information.

It's truly difficult to imagine at this point how the open-source and donation-funded Diaspora could face off Facebook, now valued at over $50b (some are already contemplating the $125b mark). Then again, by that logic, who would have thought that Wikipedia would compete with Encyclopedia Britannica (although some studies point to increasing challenges in sustaining the community-built online encyclopedia)?

And it's not yet clear how Diaspora aims in the longer run to compete with established platforms whose business model precisely relies on trading the highly valuable personal information that Diaspora wishes to leave to its users' discretion. (Perhaps one could imagine a system in which users choose whether or not to withhold this information, offering tradeoffs to those willing to part with some of their privacy?)

But right now, the founders and their community of contributors are "just focused on improving the product," said Companys.

"The extraordinary thing about this is that the guys really aren't spending any money on marketing and media," he said, "There's just been a great outpour of support."

"They're really just into changing the world."



Jean Yves Chainon


2011-02-22 16:21

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