Just a day after the fledgling social network Diaspora launched a redesign and sent out a new wave of invitations to its alpha site, news came from TechCrunch of the tragic loss of one of its young co-founders, Ilya Zhitomirskiy, at just 22 years of age.
Zhitomirskiy was one of four students at New York University’s Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences who wanted to work on a decentralised, open-source alternative to Facebook over the 2010 summer break. Along with Dan Grippi, Maxwell Salzberg and Raphael Sofaer, Zhitomirskiy turned to crowd-sourcing website Kickstarter to raise enough money to allow them to spend the summer coding. Facebook had been in the news again after yet another privacy scandal and Diaspora promised to be an ethical, responsible alternative:
We believe that privacy and connectedness do not have to be mutually exclusive. 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. Diaspora will be easy to use, and it will be centered on you instead of a faceless hub.
Diaspora was perfectly timed, capturing the zeitgeist and attracting huge amount of attention. The team had asked for just $10,000, but by the time funding closed in June 2010, they had raised $200,641 from 6,479 supporters.
Once it hit its stride, Diaspora grew into a site that, although buggy, contains some really good ideas, such as creating a stream of your friend’s comments which you can view according to which ‘aspect’, or group, you have added them to. If that sounds familiar, it’s because there is a lot of similarity between Google+ and Diaspora. Not only is some of the functionality similar, but the general layouts are too: a central stream of updates, aspects/circles on the left, and then a right-hand sidebar displaying your friends and various links. Discussion continues as to who copied whom, but we’ll leave that judgment to history.
One key difference, however, is in number of users. Google+ has 40 million, whereas Diaspora has just 180,000 users, in part because the service is still in alpha testing. This might actually work to Diaspora’s advantage in the long run as it will have more time to build a sense of community. Experience shows us that online communities that grow too fast fragment and can become fractious as different groups clash over what kind of behaviour they think should be allowed.
Google+ grew quickly and, in my opinion, suffered from exactly that sort of community fragmentation. But its growing pains were not limited to argumentative users and the usual buggy interfaces and downtime that services like Twitter struggled with for years. Rather, Google+ questioned users’ very identities, making them feel insecure, as a few malicious complaints about whether someone was using a ‘real name’ or not could result in a ban from Google+ and other Google services. Such problems can make people hesitant to use a site — no one likes to invest time in building a new profile and network only to have it summarily taken away.
It has to be said that Diaspora certainly has bugs. Using it this morning, I saw a number of error pages although, in fairness, I still get errors from Twitter and I’ve been using that for five years now. But what it also has is a commitment to ethics, recently adopting the Social Network Users’ Bill of Rights drafted last year at the Computers, Freedom, Privacy annual conference. That alone sets it apart from more commercial operations that seek to collect as much data about users as they can get away with so that they have a product to sell. As Charlie Stross reminds us, "If you're not paying for the product, you are the product."
Diaspora is also a distributed network of networks, rather than one monolithic network. This does make things a little confusing for first-time users as there are many Diaspora installations, or pods, that users can choose from. Some, like the official JoinDiaspora.org are still invite-only whereas others, like Diasp.org, are already open. But this architecture should, hopefully, ensure that Diaspora doesn’t struggle so much with the scaling issues that so plagued Twitter and even Facebook in its early days.
Will Diaspora one day challenge the likes of Facebook and Google+? There’s no doubt that the team behind Diaspora has the imagination and capability to put together a site that has the kind of functionality and usability one would expect of a social network. Connections with Tumbler and, yes, even Facebook, show that they understand that Diaspora cannot stand alone.
The question is whether they can survive financially long enough to iron out the bugs and whether they can persuade enough people to get involved as users, volunteers, donors and pod hosts. A recent drive to top up their coffers raised at least $45,000 before PayPal temporarily blocked their account for no discernible reason (they unblocked it a couple of days later).
There’s clearly still interest in Diaspora, likely from people unhappy with Facebook and Google+ selling their users to the highest bidder. Hopefully there’s enough interest to see Diaspora mature into a genuine threat to the current social media incumbents. For the sake of our privacy, we need Diaspora to succeed.