Timing is everything.
Back on April 24th, four NYU students (pictured: Raphael, Ilya, Daniel and Maxwell), set themselves up on a site called Kickstarter with the goal of raising $10,000 so that they could devote themselves to working full-time through the summer on their idea for Diaspora, "the privacy aware, personally controlled, do-it-all distributed open source social network". Two of them were graduating, the other two had potential internships... but all they really wanted to do was code.
Three days later they had passed $2500 and were going to start some PR and outreach to relevant blogs.
What they couldn't have necessarily known was that Facebook would choose this time to anger and alienate so many people with their privacy changes...
TAPPING INTO RAGE
Their one little idea for a project happened to hit the tech world's radar at just the right time... and landed them with write-ups in tech sites like ReadWriteWeb: Diaspora Project: Building the Anti-Facebook. Business insider discussed "Here's The Privacy Line That Facebook Just Crossed..." and talked about challenges that Diaspora would have. Many other sites mentioned the project and developers tweeted about it.
Then came more mainstream coverage... the Chronicle of Higher Education... then a Huffington Post article... then a New York Times article, both online and in print: Four Nerds and a Cry to Arms Against Facebook... and then even more of the tech media world went crazy... a sampling:
And many, many, many, many more...
Tech superstar Leo Laporte deleted his Facebook account on his This Week in Google podcast and promoted Diaspora on the show - and went on to donate $100 to the project. Twitter was filled with comments and links about Diaspora... Very ironically, multiple Facebook pages are up - one by a fan and one by the team... the buzz was all over the tech space...
The end result is that the four guys FAR exceeded their goal... as of this morning they had 4774 backers pledging $174,334! The amount will undoubtedly be more by the time you read this article.
The team has been admittedly overwhelmed and written about how their "situation has changed a little".
HOW DOES IT WORK?
Well... given that it's just an idea that the guys are planning to work on, we don't exactly know yet... but the ideas they describe are that of a "distributed, decentralized social network" that is much more in line with the "open internet" architecture. ReadWriteWeb had a nice explanation:
So what is Diaspora anyway? Instead of being a singular portal like Facebook, Diaspora is a distributed network where separate computers connect to each other directly, without going through a central server of some sort.
Once set up, the network could aggregate your information - including your Facebook profile, if you wanted. It could also import things like tweets, RSS feeds, photos, etc., similar to how the social aggregator FriendFeed does. A planned plugin framework could extend these possibilities even further.
Your computer, called a "seed" in the Diaspora setup, could even integrate the connected services in new ways. For example, a photo uploaded to Flickr could automatically be turned into a Twitter post using the caption and link.
When you "friend" another user, you're actually "friending" that seed, technically speaking. There's not a centralized server managing those friend connections as there is with Facebook - it's just two computers talking to each other. Friends can then share their information, content, media and anything else with each other, privately using GPG encryption.
It's about eliminating Single Points of Failure (SPOFs)... it's about putting you in control.
Just as you can choose to operate your own email server or your own web server... or you can choose to use someone's hosted email or web server... the idea would be that you could run your own "social network" server - or use someone else's hosted social network.
It's not necessarily a new idea... it's what the great folks at Status.Net are trying to do with an open source micro-blogging platform (I wrote earlier about why it matters) so that we can have a "distributed, decentralized Twitter"... and then with the follow-on "OStatus" effort (which the Diaspora guys reference in their latest post)...
The move toward more open communication is going on in other areas, too... it's what has been going on in the world of XMPP for years to bring about distributed, decentralized instant messaging (IM)... it's what the federation aspect of Google Wave could potentially bring us...
THE DIRECTORY CHALLENGE
In my mind, a key challenge the Diaspora team will need to address is:
How do I find someone in the Diaspora network?
In the centralized world of Facebook, I can do a search and with the right search terms easily find and get connected to some long-lost friend. Likewise, I can search in Twitter... or for another example, in Skype. All of these services have a centralized database.
Contrast that to the distributed, decentralized world of the Web... or email... or Jabber/XMPP IM... you have to either know someone's URL or address... or you have to look it up in a search engine like Google.
It's not as easy as with a centralized service.
I've admittedly sent someone a message on Facebook purely because I didn't know their "best" email address and didn't have time to look it up anywhere. I knew that Facebook would provide that linkage - and I was already connected.
Somehow the Diaspora team needs to solve the directory challenge... not sure how, but I wish them the best with it and hope they do.
WILL DIASPORA SUCCEED?
Good question... First it sounds like the team needs to grapple with the overwhelming interest and sort out the best way forward.
Second, their going to have to grapple with the enormous expectations now being placed on them!
Third, we all who are watching are going to have to realize and understand that any project like this doesn't just appear overnight... that the first iterations will probably need some work... that it won't slice bread and do a zillion other things on the first day, etc., etc., etc.
Fourth, Facebook may very well make moves to change its privacy policies or make things better in some ways ... and perhaps do just enough to calm people down and cool the fervor for an alternative.
Fifth, the reality is that with 400 million people on Facebook, with more signing up each day, there is an enormous inertia against any kind of change. The other reality is that many, many of those "regular" Facebook users don't realized the importance of these issues and may just not care...
As an advocate for a more open internet, I certainly hope these guys succeed in building out some type of open, distributed, decentralized network... they're off to a great start with $174K committed and perhaps more importantly a list of ~5,000 supporters passionate enough to give $$$... I'll certainly watch the project and help in any way I can...
And if nothing else, they have already raised more awareness around why this is important...
Kudos to them for what they've done... best wishes to them for what sounds like will be a VERY busy summer for them... and I'm looking forward to seeing what they are able to do...
P.S. And yes, in full disclosure, I pledged $10.. it may or may not work out in the end... but I applaud their creativity and initiative... and I'd love to see it happen!
If you found this post interesting or useful, please consider either subscribing to the RSS feed or following me on Twitter or subscribing to my email newsletter.