Can four college students take down Facebook? If there was ever a time to try, it would be now.
Neal Gorenflo discussed the growing Facebook backlash earlier this week, and offered his wish list for an alternative social network. Without a credible alternative, however, a lot of us are reluctant to take the plunge and cancel our accounts. With over 500 million users, Facebook isn't merely ubiquitous--it's the connective tissue that binds you to your friends, family, professional contacts and once-forgotten acquaintances. It'll take a compelling challenger to take down Facebook. Four NYU students are stepping up, announcing Diaspora*, a fully open-source, privacy-minded alternative.
The Diaspora* model is reminiscent of Wordpress, the blogging software available as either a freemium hosted service or a self-hosted platform. Diaspora* allows users to host their own instances of the social networking software on their own servers. These social networking islands--or seeds, as the developers describe them--can speak to and interact with one another, enabling a non-centralized social network. Since practically anyone can host their own Diaspora* seed, users can ensure their privacy to a trusted provider.
The response in the media and online has been stunning. Demonstrating the degree of anti-Facebook sentiment, Diaspora*'s Kickstarter page has raised over $100,000 in the two days since the project was profiled at the New York Times. As of this writing, "how do I delete my Facebook account?" is Google's fifth-highest search suggestion to the query "how do I". The uproar has reached such a mass that Facebook, which often ignores user complaints, has called an all-hands meeting to discuss privacy policies at 4:00pm this afternoon.
Despite all of this buzz, a number of tech pundits are skeptical about the Diaspora project. Cnet's Matt Asay is dubious that a solution which requires deployment on an individual's server will gain the critical mass of users necessary for social networking services to be useful. Asay points to identi.ca, the privacy-minded Twitter clone that has failed to catch fire outside of coder and hacker circles. Wired's Epicenter blog is also skeptical, citing a study that states that only users 35-and-over care about Facebook privacy concerns. (Though the Diaspora* developers' youth seems to undermine such claims.)
As a Facebook user who is strongly critical of the company's recent policy changes, I'm optimistic and encouraged by the overwhelming response to Diaspora, and see much potential in an open-source alternative to Facebook. Still, I have some questions and concerns of my own: Will a paid hosted version a la Wordpress.com prove to be a sustainable business model? Will the know-how necessary to set up and host your own Diaspora* seed turn off non-technical users? To what extent will each deployment interoperate with one another--will people on one seed interact with people on another seed seamlessly, or will there be incompatibilities?
Achieving the necessary critical mass of users is another concern: considering the difficulty Google has had launching their own social networking service Buzz, with an already massive built-in user base, it's clear that any competitor to the Facebook behemoth has a steep uphill climb ahead of it. It will be essential for the development community around Diaspora* to follow Wordpress example and make a concerted effort to evangelize about its ease-of-use to non-technical users. There are already plenty of open-source social networking platforms for geeks; what we need is an open-source social networking platform our Moms will feel comfortable using.
It's difficult to answer many of these questions at this point--the project is very early in its development cycle--but the discussion and buzz around Diaspora* remains exciting, no matter the ultimate result. Certainly, other open-source social networking projects exist, such as Elgg and Drupal, a popular content management system which has been adopted more as a publishing platform than for its social networking features. But these other projects have failed to ignite the popular imagination or attract media coverage in the way that Diaspora* has over the past few days. This demonstrates that there is a growing public sentiment against Facebook and its policies, as well as enthusiasm for a distributed, open-source alternative. For privacy advocates and open source fans alike, this can only be a good thing.