Diaspora Is Back, and More Ambitious

Here’s another way to get to half a billion friends–launch the anti-Facebook.

On the day the four NYU students behind Diaspora moved into their office in San Francisco, they were recognized on the street by a subway commuter who recognized them by sight: “Go get ’em, guys! Kill Facebook!” In San Francisco, internet famous is famous.

That anecdote is courtesy today’s epic profile of Diaspora in IEEE Spectrum. Diaspora is the manifestation of online privacy advocate Eben Moglen’s concept of a “freedom box,”  a simple web server everyone would carry around with their data on it. Facebook offers users “free web-hosting and some PHP doodads” in exchange for “spying for free all the time,” Mr. Moglen says.

After about a year of heads-down coding at Pivotal Labs in San Francisco, the Diasporites are opening up a bit (they’re giving us an interview, for example), suggesting they have more confidence in a product, still in alpha, that was not well-received when it launched in the fall.

There’s no question that people resent Facebook’s monopoly, because unlike with most services that occasionally break promises or otherwise piss customers off, you can’t leave, creating an infuriating catch-22 in that the most attractive thing about Facebook is that everyone is on Facebook. The Diaspora project raised more than $200,000 on its goal of $10,000 on Kickstarter.

But not everyone’s convinced. “It’s digital veganism,” said NerdCollider founder Cody Brown, who went to NYU at the same time as the Diaspora guys. “They haven’t proved that this product is even philosophically better.”

(The philosophical question being whether an open, decentralized social network, in which users can choose who hosts their data and instead of entrusting it all to one company, is superior to giving up some control in exchange for ease and ubiquity.)

At the same time, Mr. Brown says, he likes Diaspora because it’s different. So does Mark Zuckerberg, who said he donated via Kickstarter.
One interesting piece of the story–the Diaspora guys are starting to align themselves with Google, using Google protocols and getting advice from Google engineers, begging the question of whether Diaspora could end up as Google’s answer to Facebook.
Diaspora Is Back, and More Ambitious