First there was Friendster, then there was Myspace, now we have Facebook. Like empires, each succeeding social networking platform seems like the last, but each has had its own expiration date. If Facebook is Rome, then the barbarians at the gate are named Diaspora, an open-source platform that went into consumer alpha testing late last November. Although the developers, four young guys from New York University, insist they're not after Facebook, Diaspora's focus on user control and privacy – as well as the name – tell a bit of a different story.
I've been waiting to get a crack at Diaspora since the first rumors of its existence started bouncing around the web, and last week I finally got my shot. Diaspora started its capitalization on the crowd-funding site Kickstarter, where it was shockingly successful, raising over $200,000. As a reward for their early faith, donators have recieved access to the alpha version, as well as to a handful of invitations each. Since each of the invited also gets an invite, even some poor slob enthusiasts like this writer have gotten their grubby little hands on them. And after months (which is forever in internet time) of waiting for a Facebook challenger, here's what it looks like:
Okay, so it's a bit bare bones for now, but this is alpha, people. There are some obvious bugs – like the site forgetting my password every few logins – but this stage is really designed for people with the ability and inclination (of which I only lack one) to fix the code themselves. Diaspora alpha is defintionally not prepared to compete, but its structure poses some intriguing questions.
The site allows you to separate your friends into different "aspects," which are nothing like Facebook networks or groups. You post things to aspects themselves, so there's no need to hide things from your boss or worry about relatives seeing party pictures. But just as Facebook has created new sorts of techno-social anxieties (to like or not to like), could Diaspora's aspects resurrect clearly defined social cliques? Just wait till the middle schoolers get ahold of it.