Pining for an alternative to Facebook. Will it be Diaspora?

At the 2009 NTEN NTC, there was a plenary delivered by Eben Moglen that stuck with me enough that I had to watch it a couple more times after I got home. He spoke about reclaiming our personal data from corporations, and about distributed data shared peer-to-peer by choice, by we the people who could and should own our personal data. And when and if we choose to share, corporations will not be allowed to spy on us.

Moglen’s NTC speech was enough to make me giddy with youthful, idealistic enthusiasm (an uncommon occurrence these days). Apparently, a similar talk inspired four youthful, idealistic nerds from NYU to spend their summer building a private, distributed social networking platform called Diaspora, and they raised a bunch (over $100K at last check!!) of money to do it via Kickstarter. (In an instance of non-Alanis-Morrisette actual irony, the banner ad displayed to me above that NYT article was an Adobe ad that said “We [heart] Apple.” But I digress.)

Raphael Sofaer, one of the Diaspora developers, starts out the video on their site explaining, “In real life, we talk to each other; we don’t need to hand our messages to a hub [Facebook, Twitter, etc.] and have them handed to our friends. Our virtual lives should work the same way.” So Diaspora would be a platform that you could install on your own server, and you’d own it, and use it to share as much or as little as you want. As I understand it, your encrypted data would be shared, at your discretion, in a peer-to-peer fashion with other Diaspora “nodes,” owned by others. The developers' website also claims they want Diaspora to be able to “scrape” current social networks so that you can get your personal data back from places like Twitter.

One of the main purposes of the Internet has always been about humans using computers to connect with other humans (via other computers), and social networking has clearly established itself as the current evolutionary iteration of this human instinct to connect via technology. The use of Facebook, Twitter and Google has become ubiquitous, yet many of us strongly dislike being watched by corporations and having our personal data continually scanned and mined.

Social networking platforms for private groups (online communities behind “velvet ropes”) are still lacking; Ning, which isn’t even private in terms of data ownership, failed to keep their service free, and has certainly failed nonprofits. Something like Diaspora—if it is truly easy to use, hard to crash, extremely well-designed, and truly private—could be revolutionary in this space. In my experience, nonprofits do some of their best work in small groups who are working on sensitive issues and/or with sensitive data for which they require privacy, but whose effect is dramatically increased if they are able to use technology to collaborate privately. A quick inventory of semi-private and private social networking platforms as they stand right now (feel free to add to this list in comments):

  • Ning and Groupsite: You can create "private," closed groups on these paid, hosted SaaS platforms, but they own your data and the software is proprietary and not open for community iteration. Oh so many issues.
  • Elgg and OneSocialWeb: I haven’t used these myself. This excellent critique of the Diaspora concept raises them both as free, open, viable alternatives that already exist, and asks why someone isn’t just working on a distributed version of Elgg. Good question.
  • phpBB: I use this to run a private group on my own (uh, virtual-cloud, so is it really private?) server. Lemme tell you, the development community around this bboard software exists enough to make it useable, but it’s (to use bboard lingo) a PITA to use.
  • Drupal: I build websites in Drupal, and I can say that using Drupal as a social networking platform is not yet for the faint-of-heart.
  • Ye olden listservs: Email discussion list software, which you can install on your own server, is still a first choice for many geeks who want private collaboration. Listserv platforms are not even close to being as user-friendly as (the plenty-problematic) Google or Yahoo groups, but they can be made as truly private as you can get.

Are these enthusiastic, eager college grad Diaspora developer-kids really going to be able to build something usable—something that can be iterated upon effectively—in three months of summer break? As they nurse their lattes in their video with that glazed, been-coding-too-long look in their eyes, they claim they will be working more than twelve hours a day to get this done. I am not sure that’s enough, but I can’t help but feel a little hopeful that Diaspora, or something like it, may be on the horizon.

May 26, 2010: Allyson Kapin has a great post on this on FrogLoop.


Joomla and Appleseed as other options

Great article, Johanna.  While it seems like Diaspora is getting some early traction, I'd also recommend people take a look at tools that have been around for a while for social networking services.  Two I'd recommend looking into more:

Think distributed networking meets social networking meets open source.  Powerful stuff!

Joomla with one-click social networking app (FREE!), example:
All the benefits of a great social networking tool, GPL'd, quick installation, robust services.  Slick, easy to configure, super robust, and I think quite simple to install versus other open source CMSes.