At this point it should be wholly unnecessary to explain why an open and privacy friendly alternative to Facebook, and other closed social networks, is necessary. The question, then, is how to provide alternative that meets the criteria and has a low barrier of entry to boot. The developers behind Diaspora Project have proposed exactly that, and have asked the community to help fund its development.
The Diaspora team comprises four young developers from New York University's Courant
Institute. The developers, Dan Grippi, Maxwell Salzberg, Raphael
Sofaer, and Ilya Zhitomirskiy, put out call
for funding to raise a modest $10,000 for the team to work on Diaspora
through the summer. To date, with more than a week until the pledge drive
ends on June 1st, Diaspora has racked up more than $180,000 from more than
5,300 backers. Nearly half have chipped in between $25 and $49, and five
donors have pledged $1,000 or more. The group has been profiled in The New
York Times and Wired
as an open alternative to Facebook.
All of that comes without a line of code having been made public, and on a
relatively vague description of what Diaspora will be. The only
incentives, aside from the promise of code release at the end of
summer, are some assorted perks like free t-shirts or (at the top end)
access to the Diaspora build server for those donating $1,000 or
more. Diaspora will be made public under the Affero GPLv3 at the end of the
summer, but the specifics of the release are uncertain.
The Diaspora folks have not focused on individual servers, but on giving
users control of their data and decentralizing services that are similar to Facebook's.
The project claims inspiration from Eben Moglen's speech
to the New York branch of the Internet Society on February 5th. The topic
of the talk was Freedom in the Cloud, and rather than pointing fingers at
Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, or other computing figureheads that have embraced
proprietary software, Moglen called out Mark Zuckerberg for doing
"more harm to the human race than anybody else his age."
Rather than suggesting legal solutions to the problem of Facebook, Moglen
suggested that Facebook should be made obsolete, and to implement social services using "wall wart servers" where people control their own data.
So what is Diaspora? According to the project page, the
initial design of Diaspora includes GPG encryption, the ability to scrape
Twitter and Flickr, and the beginnings of a way for Diaspora instances to
"friend" one another. Each user will have their own "seed",
which will aggregate information. A seed runs on a computer hosted by the user or on a shared service. Seeds will pull data from various services and be able to distribute it to other services. The example given by Salzberg is uploading a picture to Flickr and having the seed automatically generate a tweet using the caption and link. Diaspora will handle services via a plugin interface, so that it's easy to add new services.
A service that only ties together existing networks, however, is not very useful. So Diaspora would also allow friends to connect their seeds over an encrypted connection and share content privately. The long-term capabilities hinted at include instant messaging, VoIP, and being an OpenID provider.
After hearing of the project, Luis Villa posed
several questions about the design, technical solutions, and social
problems involved with creating a successful social network. This prompted
complete description of the features and framework for
Diaspora. Specifically, it says it plans to "build less" and
focus on four specific features.
The first is the protocol to communicate between Diaspora servers, which
would be encrypted between nodes. The team has not decided whether this
will be a new protocol, or if it would be possible to use the Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol
(XMPP). The next feature is the data store that would hold users' data. The
Diaspora team says it's considering the MongoDB database for the first
iteration, but may look at the Tahoe-LAFS distributed filesystem.
Another focus for Diaspora will be an extension framework. The developers promise a "service-agnostic" and "content-agnostic" framework that is easy to import or export any kind of data from any Web service. Finally, they plan to integrate OpenID and OAuth. Users should be able to use their own Diaspora seed as an OpenID provider, and to allow other services to access their Diaspora service through OAuth.
What won't be in Diaspora v1.0? For one thing, the developers don't intend to support all services out of the gate. Instead, Diaspora will be a framework that is "well tested and documented."
We will write backend interfaces for some services, but I think the community will be able outperform us in bandwidth and quality on this one. It is fundamental to the success of the project that the code be 100% free, or the project will fail. End of story.
It will also not be a community project, at least not until the end of the summer. The Diaspora team has indicated that, while they may engage in discussions about protocols with the community, they prefer to work as a foursome this summer. "We want to be an independent code base because the four of us work fast and well as a team. Our arguments are short and solved by someone writing better code."
They are also not guaranteeing that Diaspora will be easy to install in its first iteration. Despite that, the team does seem to understand the necessity of Diaspora being easy for non-technical users. According to the Kickstarter page, the goal is "for everyone to have full control over their data and to empower people in to become responsible, secure, and social Internet dwellers." The project also promises a turnkey hosted service similar to WordPress.com, to allow users who have no interest in managing their own server the ability to simply run a Diaspora instance.
The idea of an open source, distributed social network is not new. The
DiSo Project, for example, attempted
to use WordPress as a building block for a distributed social network
through plugins. That project still has some signs of life, but after three
years, it still hasn't generated much traction, but has succeeded in
having several founders hired by Google. Red Hat's Mugshot sank without a trace.
The only libre social networking tool that has generated any serious traction is StatusNet, and its flagship Identi.ca service, which has emerged as a viable alternative to Twitter. Even that has seen limited success reaching a mainstream audience, as Villa points out. The fact that the project has overshot its funding goals by such a wide margin suggests that it will have an interested audience on launch. That, of course, does not equal success. As Villa points out, it's not only important that Diaspora be easy to use, it also needs to appeal to a wider audience. Having harnessed mainstream press attention may help, but that's a far cry from delivering a user-friendly social networking service that excites a mainstream audience.
But it seems to have most of the necessary pieces, at least in theory. One thing that Diaspora doesn't address, at least thus far, is applications. A lot of Facebook's popularity can be attributed to applications like Farmville, and fan pages for causes, celebrities, and random things. While those may not appeal overmuch to many LWN readers, it's one of the hooks that draws in many non-technical (and less privacy-conscious) users. In turn, those users help generate the network effect that has helped Facebook become one of the more popular sites on the Web.
Following the attention and onslaught of funding, the Diaspora team is
plowing through feedback and offers of help and advice. The team has
also largely gone silent publicly and has not responded to questions I sent
to the "press" email address about how they planned to handle the
overabundance of funding. This is, perhaps, less ominous than it
sounds. Give four college-age developers, who asked the community to come
up with $10,000 to work on their dream project, ten or twenty times that
amount and it may take some time for them to adjust and refocus. Still, it
is concerning that Kickstarter apparently has no safeguards for this sort
of windfall or to help ensure that users get their money's worth. The money is disbursed when the funding period ends and it's entirely up to the project to deliver what it promises.
One hopes that the developers will be able to live up to the trust the community has placed in them. As Moglen has said, it's up to technologists to make closed social networks obsolete. The Diaspora team now has a long runway to work towards this, and clear interest from the community to succeed.
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