The people behind an open-source “privacy aware” alternative to Facebook say the system will launch on September 15. But it still remains unclear whether Diaspora can compete with major social networks — or indeed, what competing means.
The project is the work of four students who responded to the controversy over Facebook’s often-confusing and frequently-revised privacy policies. They managed to raise $200,000 in an online appeal after vowing to build a “privacy aware, personally controlled, do-it-all distributed open source social network.”
Exactly what Diaspora is is a somewhat fuzzy topic as it’s as much about the concept as the product. One way to describe it is that if Facebook is a direct download site, Diaspora is Bit Torrent. The idea is to produce software to allow individuals to run a personal web server (a seed) to host the material they want to share, such as multimedia or status updates. And being open source means it will be easier to develop new tools, whether that be add-on applications or new ways to filter and display the content, in particular controlling who is allowed to see what.
The September launch will only be the release of the source code for developers. It will be October before the first appearance of a “consumer facing alpha”: in other words, something Joe Blow can actually use.
Whether Diaspora will succeed depends how you define success. Clearly it’s not going to kill Facebook. Half a billion users are already on Facebook, many of them there because most of the people they know are among those half a billion. And most of those half a billion likely wouldn’t even understand the concepts behind Diaspora, let alone care enough to start from scratch with yet another social network.
That doesn’t mean the concept won’t work. The chances are some great ideas will emerge from Diaspora… and the chances are some of those ideas will wind up being used by sites like Facebook. (That may be why, according to rumor, Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg is among those who donated to Diaspora.)
There’s also a great point made by Len Firewood, a commenter on a report on the Daily Telegraph website: “If Diaspora only attracts one million users just think – a million highly computer literate nerds and tech heads has got to be a very valuable market for many vendors in the computing and high tech sectors.”