Diaspora: The Review

For months, I waited with bated breath to see if Diaspora, touted as the Free Software alternative to Facebook, was living up to its promise to the hundreds of people that invested in the project. Diaspora functions on three basic principles: privacy, control of user-data, and federation.

The Social Anti-Network

Diaspora approaches the Semantic Web with the opposite idea of most social networking websites. Places such as Facebook or Myspace set up a vast internal network spanning across servers they own, using services they created. This is all fine and good, but it also means that a solid portion of the web are closed social networks. A Myspace user cannot directly send a message to a Facebook user, for example. Instead, the Myspace user needs to actually register for Facebook, and then message his or her friend from there.

Diaspora takes the concept of “Federation” into account, and essentially is being designed with several other projects to create a completely intertwineable network in which users can connect and interact regardless of the web or desktop platform they’re using. This can be explained easily in the diagram below for the SWAT0 Project, which aims to help in standardizing the other FOSS social networking projects out there standardize for clear communication to work without anything breaking or fragmenting. Instead of “boxing in” the users into a social network, it “boxes out” the rest of the web from seeing a user’s content if they wish for it to be private, allowing for the user to add the parts of the web community he or she likes and trusts into their own private “networking bubble”. The beauty of this is that it also allows users to have complete control of their data, and eventually will provide for users to move from “seed” (web host/node) to seed with all of their friends, posts, and data intact.

Diaspora approaches the Semantic Web with the opposite idea of most social networking websites. Places such as Facebook or Myspace set up a vast internal network spanning across servers they own, using services they created. This is all fine and good, but it also means that a solid portion of the web are closed social networks. A Myspace user cannot directly send a message to a Facebook user, for example. Instead, the Myspace user needs to actually register for Facebook, and then message his or her friend from there.

Diaspora takes the concept of “Federation” into account, and essentially is being designed with several other projects to create a completely intertwineable network in which users can connect and interact regardless of the web or desktop platform they’re using. This can be explained easily in the diagram below for the SWAT0 Project, which aims to help in standardizing the other FOSS social networking projects out there standardize for clear communication to work without anything breaking or fragmenting. Instead of “boxing in” the users into a social network, it “boxes out” the rest of the web from seeing a user’s content if they wish for it to be private, allowing for the user to add the parts of the web community he or she likes and trusts into their own private “networking bubble”. The beauty of this is that it also allows users to have complete control of their data, and eventually will provide for users to move from “seed” (web host/node) to seed with all of their friends, posts, and data intact.

A Red Letter Day

On September 15 of 2010, the Diaspora devs opened up their code repository on GitHub for all to see. I downloaded the source code, and was dumbfounded. This was literally “compile this shit” source code, as opposed to an archived package of something you just upload to a server, such as WordPress. After working fruitlessly on my DreamHost server for hours, I decided it was too difficult to get it running for myself and friends to test at this time. I ended up checking out several of the test severs that had been set up, and settled on OpenSpora. It’s not perfect, but the sysadmin keeps up with the latest git snapshots, so fixes come quickly enough.

The aesthetic designs of the site are simple and elegant, and take the rather complicated concepts described above and turn it into a system that is both intuitive and quite usable. It is far from perfect at the time being, but the interface just makes a lot of sense. For example, managing friends and determining which “Aspect”, or group they can go into (and what they can see), and managing friend requests at the same time. One simply drags the user’s avatar into whichever category they belong in, and then the additional category will appear at the top of the screen, and can filter out which posts are displayed to you.

The Screenshots

The Show-Stoppers

I won’t be the first to say that the code is somewhat buggy, as well as incomplete. However, the real showstoppers are the requirements of the platform itself: Ruby on Rails, and MongoDB. Currently, not all that many web hosting services support either one unless you’re willing to shell out cash for a private server. On the other hand, quite a lot of people are just running the network on their own computers. This can be a problem, as well if they don’t set everything up properly, especially when it comes to the technologies that allow users to connect across networks to begin with.

The final show-stopper is the additional developer’s license that seems will be pushed onto those that hack with the main Diaspora platform. I’m not really sure where I sit on it myself, as I understand that they’re trying to build a platform from nothing, and get secured patents and things like that. I just like the software, and the fact that it’s all under the GNU AGPL v3 license, so at the very least it is Free Software, after all.

The Bottom Line

Diaspora is buggy and incomplete, but it already shows a lot of promise. Within hours of the source code release, the project had already merged in dozens of patches and fixes. I see a huge amount of potential with the project, not just from the platform alone, but also the emergence of new standards to allow for a truly open, consumer-friendly social network that can keep on extending regardless of client, platform, or operating system.

Sean is a guy from the middle of nowhere in Illinois who passionately supports Free Software, Free Culture, and decentralized communication systems. He serves as the editor of We Distribute, a publication dedicated to the development of the fediverse. In his spare time, Sean is a budding indie game dev, writer, web developer, and a musician.

5 thoughts on “Diaspora: The Review

  1. Hi, Thx for the review. I personnally really like the way to launch Diaspora (as an exe on a port instead of horrible PHP/CGI stuff). There might be a bit too many dependencies (many of which are not in default repositories). I’ve made a Virtual Machine to test it and I can share it to anyone interested 😉

  2. The only thing I’m _really_ worried about with Diaspora are the security issues. I understand that it’s pre-alpha software but for any software that is going to be dealing with private data security needs to BE the design.

    1. Oh, absolutely. As I understand it, though, they’re looking at quite a level of encryption, so at the very least that’s a start… But yeah, they’re applying a lot of different concepts in at the same time, I just hope that they can make it all work.

  3. An open source community driven project cannot possibly compete with the existing network monopoly that is Facebook in order to develop the scale and power of software and architecture needed. Never mind security. Equally users have absolutely no reason to switch to another corporate overlord when Facebook does a great job of providing a free service.

    The only alternative that stands a chance is one run as a business, employing the best full time staff, investing in the same advertising, business partnerships and hardware as Facebook, but with any profits going to charities chosen by the users so they are motivated to spread the word. This means users privacy can be balanced with money raised for charity and users have an incentive to open up more if they choose to. Initial investors (Dragons Den?) could be promised a capped, say 300% ROI and a place on the board of trustees that are trusted to maximise profits for charity, not shareholders, while listening to the users.

    I’m sure there are plenty of people who would do some pro-bono work to help from developers to lawyers to ego driven businessmen to celebrities. If Lady Gaga and co can go without social networking for a day in the name of one charity I’m sure they could be brought on board if they stand to help charities long term. This is one internet business where people hold the ultimate power. Somebody just needs to get it going. I’ve not got the time and skills to do it but I’d happily join and promote it if someone gets it going.

    Diaspora might even make a good starting point but it will need a heck of a lot more people behind it who have good business sense but aren’t just in it for themselves.

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