The Audacity of Diaspora

Last Friday Businessweek ran a story on Diaspora, a social platform built from what might be called Facebook anti-matter. It’s a great read that chronicles the project’s extraordinary highs and lows, from Pebble-like Kickstarter success to the loss of a founder to suicide. Given the overwhelming hype around Facebook’s IPO this week, it’s worth remembering such a thing exists – and even though it’s in private beta, Diaspora is one of the largest open source projects going right now, and boasts around 600,000 beta testers.

I’ve watched Diaspora from the sidelines, but anyone who reads this site regularly will know that I’m rooting for it. I was surprised – and pleased – to find out that Diaspora is executing something of a “pivot” – retaining its core philosophy of being a federated platform where “you own your own data” while at the same time adding new Tumblr and Pinterest-like content management features, as well as integration with – gasp! – Facebook.  And this summer, the core team behind the service is joining Y Combinator in the Valley – a move that is sure to accelerate its service from private beta to public platform.

I like Diaspora because it’s audacious, it’s driven by passion, and it’s very, very hard to do. After all, who in their right mind would set as a goal taking on Facebook? That’s sort of like deciding to build a better search engine – very expensive, with a high likelihood of failure. But what’s really audacious is the vision that drives Diaspora – that everyone owns their own data, and everyone has the right to do with it what they want. The vision is supported by a federated technology platform – and once you federate, you lose central control as a business. Then, business models get very, very hard. So you’re not only competing against Facebook, you’re also competing against the reality of the marketplace – centralized domains are winning right now (as I pointed out here).

It seems what Diaspora is attempting to do is take the functionality and delight of the dependent web, and mix it with the freedom and choice offered by the independent web. Of course, that sounds pretty darm good to me.

Given the timing of Facebook’s public debut, the move to Y Combinator, and perhaps just my own gut feel, I think Diaspora is one to watch in coming months. As of two days ago, the site is taking registrations for its public debut. Sign up here.

3 thoughts on “The Audacity of Diaspora”

  1. For someone who claims to be following Diaspora you make some glaring errors. It is not in beta, it is still in alpha, and it doesn’t proclaim to be taking on facebook. And, as far as I can tell from searching the web yesterday, Ilya’s death is still unexplained pending coronor’s reports, so his “suicide” is still unconfirmed speculation and should be reported as such.

    As for Diaspora being an alternative to facebook which it certainly does aim to be, it is not alone. Friendica is for me (as a long term Diaspora alpha tester), a more interesting proposition being something that anyone can self host (without the skill or maintenance committment required by Diaspora) and which operates more through federation than centralisation. Friendica is at one end of a spectrum, Facebook and Google+ at the other, and Diaspora somewhere between the two.

    I am wholeheartedly with you in supporting alternatives to Facebook (and Google+) which are intentionally exploitative, at the same time as creating massive vulnerabilities for their users to be monitored and manipulated by all manner of third parties (government, commercial and criminal).

    Diaspora though, is not so audacious as you make out, and to me that is more than a little disappointing. Their policy is a mystery it seems to even the most invovled of their developer community which has become fractious and to some degree disillusioned The project continues to rumble on, with no audacious aims, and many months after Ilya’s sad death has yet to move from “getting closer to beta” to a firm target for even that, let alone the demise of facebook.

    Facebook will probably fail, though the timing can’t be predicted. But it won’t be from a similar challenger such as Diaspora (or even more plausibly from Google+) who can at best only vie for a proportion of the pie. No, facebook’s demise will be in favour of an alternative model, perhaps not the federation of Friendica, but quite possibly something new that arises *out* of a different approach such as federation.

    Mark (in London)

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