It’s MY data (so go cry if you want to)

This interview is an excerpt from a page on GlobalNet21 that is no longer accessible. I have kept a copy for prosperity. Interview By: Andreas Bieler

diaspora*, the privacy-aware, decentralized social network which puts users in control of their data security and was touted by the media as a “Facebook killer”, celebrates its first anniversary as a community-run project.

The project was started by four young programmers from NYU’s Courant Institute in 2010, and raised a record $200,000 via Kickstarter. It broke new ground in establishing a social network which respects users’ privacy and helps them to own their data by giving them the power to decide where their data are stored.

On 27 August 2012, the remaining founders handed over the diaspora* project to its community. Sean Tilley, director of “open sourcery”, talks to us about the past, present and future of decentralised social networking.

Sean, tell us a bit about yourself and how you’re involved in diaspora*.

Sure. I’m just a young person trying to make the most of life. I do a lot of art. I love to draw very strange, surreal art and then release it under the creative commons for anyone to share and remix. I’ve always been a huge free software and open source advocate. I’ve been using Linux since I was 13. A lot of the ideas about open technology are extremely appealing. Because I’ve been using it for so long, I understand why it’s important. It’s been really amazing for me to see what kind of things you can do with code that’s out there; that anyone can modify, share and improve.

I was using diaspora* for about a year, possibly more, when I saw that they were hiring for an intern and I applied. It was kind of magical. It just happened and I’ve been working there ever since. Now, I’m the director of open sourcery which is kind of a joking title and basically means that I’m the community manager. My job is to work with all the developers and see what we need, what our future ideas are and how we can put these ideas to action.

diaspora* puts an emphasis on privacy. Recently, surveillance programs like Prism and Tempora have been revealed and people are more and more questioning the use of their data. Still, I can find out a lot about you without using a 007 toolkit. So, what are we really talking about?

The concern about user data isn’t so much who the data is going to as far as advertisers are concerned. My data, everything I post, everything I like can be made into a graph that basically is a map of my psyche to some degree; after using social networks for so many years. If someone in government or whoever else acquires that information I’d probably be very upset. That’s very invasive. Nobody should be able to hold a microscope over my life and the way that I live it and come up with summaries that I may or may not be dangerous. That’s ridiculous.

I feel that privacy from a user perspective is the ability to selectively choose what you want people to see about yourself. In a sense you’re sculpting a public image or public persona of the things you want people to see, the ideas you want to share and the things that you really want to put out into the world. And a lot of social networks are very minimal in supporting that idea of privacy. On Twitter for example a post is either limited or it isn’t. Facebook has actually made a lot of great improvements and basically copy what we have for aspects, where you can post to a selective group of people. But ultimately the idea is that you’re able to shape your online persona at your discretion and going a step further from our philosophy at diaspora*, we believe that you should also have control over the data that is related to everything you post. You should have first and foremost control over it – not a company such as Facebook or Twitter or Youtube or whoever.It’s ultimately your responsibility to be in charge of the data on the social network of your choice.

The idea of being watched all the time is not comfortable for human beings.

Well, if you’ve got nothing to hide…

That’s a slippery slope. People have issues that they’re not willing to share with everyone. People have feelings and opinions that they would rather just leave unsaid. If someone would be able to look at everything you ever said on a social network, regardless of your privacy settings, they get a very uncomfortable look at you…it’s like you’re naked. They get the full view of everything and there is nothing you can do about it. It’s exposing. I don’t think we should be encouraging that and make it easy for anybody. The idea of being watched all the time is not comfortable for human beings.

Why isn’t the idea of decentralised networks more popular then?

I think what a lot of people would say is that it’s very difficult to completely shut yourself off something like Facebook because you have several problems. Almost all of your friends are on centralised networks, many decentralised social networks don’t have all the same features that something like Facebook might have. And to some degree a lot of people don’t really see the point in moving even if another site has all the features they want.

Look at Google+ for example, it has all the features of Facebook but people don’t really see a reason to switch. People and organisations have the fear that they would lose all their followers or friends. A lot of people draw some kind of power that their klout score is a 60 or a 70. It’s not quite so easy for them to start over.

The trick to that I think is to make decentralised networks easier to use and making the ideas behind it more readily understood by the people that use social networks day to day. Just about any end user can understand that they want to move to a platform that’s better than what they’re using now. The focus for end-users is about providing something better, not just that our platform focuses on privacy or being Free Software. It’s that you can provide a better idea than what’s out there and make it work. If even your grandma was able to use it without any major issues or with as little issues as an elderly person would have with using Facebook, then I’d say we’re doing OK. We will get to that point.

In the long term you might not have to join any social network at all. What I’d really love to see is that at some point every individual website has the capability to be a social network.What if someone could just follow your website, follow it from their website, and would be able to comment from their dashboard and interact in all the ways that traditional social networking appears to work? That’s what we’re trying to shift towards with all these different great protocols and ideas. It’s a long way off but we will be able to move past social networks entirely.

For some time it looked as if the whole project was in jeopardy. The founders withdrew and many thought that diaspora* is on the way out…

It was very important that this project did not get abandoned. We put a lot of work into making sure that the community could take up the mantle after the guys left and to some degree it’s been really good. I’m always seeing new people joining. Like a welcoming committee I’m out there trying to welcome people that are new to diaspora* and invite them to check out some tags and get to know people. We try to set up a culture for our user community in which joining is encouraged and newcomers are made welcome.

We also have a lot of momentum for development. We continually have new people coming forward with new ideas and say ‘I know how to code, I want to put this or that together, where do I start?’ We want to encourage that. We want to bring in new people and allow them to work on whatever they want to work on. We can instruct them on how diaspora* works from a code standpoint.

You never felt like throwing in the towel?

Well, it’s easy to burn yourself out when working on any project, I think. I’m very passionate about diaspora* and the ideas that are tied to it. What keeps me going are the people that I work with and the ideas of what the project is about. It gives me purpose and happiness; it’s something that I really care about and I’ll probably work on this for a long time yet. It’s a great job, very rewarding. Working with so many people and being involved in something bigger than myself, with goals that I can really believe in – that’s my motivator.

Do you get a lot of feedback from diaspora* users?

Yes, we get tons of feedback from regular users and contributors. People that contribute art, design work or even web developers offer their opinion on what we should do. It’s our job, as a community, to be very pragmatic and say whether a proposal is practical for us to do. Is it something we can do in a short amount of time? Does it take a lot of people to work on? Being able to review things with that criteria helps us to make very good decisions together as to what we should do.

We have several different in-roads for suggestions. The end-user who might not have much of an idea about how code works, can propose something on Github. If you’re a developer you can get on to our loomio site and you can say ‘Hey, I want to make a dislike button, I know how to make the button, I know how to hook it up.’ If you present your code, we’ll evaluate it in earnest and give feedback. If the code is already there, more likely than not we’d accept it after some discussion.

Is it difficult to deal with all the different opinions and ideas?

We focus very much on consensus during our decision making. We use this tool called Loomio which is basically a really great consensus-based decision making tool. Someone will propose an idea and then everyone weighs in on how they feel about it. It’s not like a vote by majority but rather getting a gage where everyone’s at. If a bunch of people are really uncomfortable with an idea you can figure out what part of the idea people are uncomfortable with and fix it. If it’s just a few things that idea can be improved and maybe ran again.

A good example is that we were redesigning how our posts are displayed. During the beta phase of diaspora* a very custom interface was designed and it wasn’t received the best by the community because it only fit very specific use cases. So, we’ve done a lot of work to strip much of the beta stuff out now and make things more preferable to use but one of the big things is how a post is displayed and we’re working on making that much better. So we had like four or five different designs for what a post would look like and we all sat down and discussed the things we liked about one or disliked about others and we finally came to an agreement on the best design. Recently, a newcomer to the project coded it, and we all gave him feedback on implementing it. Some of our coders sprang to action after his code got merged to patch up any pieces of that code that were out of scope of his original code submission.

How do you feel about the progress that’s made?

Change is not something that just happens in a huge wave, sometimes it is very gradual.

I feel 50/50 honestly. Sometimes there is huge progress and I see the technology and I think ‘Wow that’s incredible, I can’t wait to see that.’ Other times it’s a little slow going and you wonder why different groups of people can disagree on certain ideas. Why can’t all those decentralized social networks seamlessly talk to one another yet? That can be very frustrating, but it’s worth remembering that it’s still very bleeding edge; it’s still very new as an idea and people have many different opinions as to how to do it best. You have to realise that it’s going to take time – from my perspective anyway.

What would the internet look like without an open web movement?

An internet like that would look a lot like television in that there are a bunch of set channels and the end user might have access to them but hasn’t many ways of contributing back to the channel.

Look at the existing walled gardens. A user can only use those websites in a way those websites stipulate that they be used. You can only post 140 characters on Twitter, you cannot just write a blog post there. It won’t let you by design. A lot of people talk about the “appification” of the web, where all of these different websites like Instagram are just mobile apps for the most part. They aren’t even full blown websites that anybody can use. You have to have a specific program from that company to use it on approved phone that they’ve developed it for…like the iPhone or Android. Good luck using Instagram if you have a Blackberry or Ubuntu Touch phone at this point.

A lot of these things show what that kind of web would look like. Something where you can’t really contribute very much beyond using websites the way they tell you to use them.

Do you think it’s important for people to contribute when it’s so easy to just use whatever is offered?

It’s absolutely important. One of the best things about the web that it can be used for so many wonderful things. Without the open web we wouldn’t have things like Wikipedia for example. It isn’t perfect but it must be understood that at the very least it is a source of information that people can openly contribute to. Without the vision of an open web that kind of thing wouldn’t be possible. We would have Microsoft Encarta being the main go-to source for our web information rather than Wikipedia.

Am I not limited in my contribution if I’m not a techie or developer?

I see what you mean, but look at, a self-hosted blogging platform. It doesn’t have the problem of an intermediary able to shut down your articles. The great thing about it is that even the most non-technical person can set up their own website if they wanted to. It’s stupidly easy to install. You can say whatever you want, you have control over the comments. In that way, we have open web technologies that are easy enough for just about anyone to use. To some degree, just using software can be contributing.

Without the end-user, a developer is somewhat powerless. What good is it to develop a platform if no one is going to come to it? In many ways developers are dependent on their users and that’s certainly been the case for diaspora*. It’s the user community that, through their interest in the project, brings more developers to it. It’s a network effect.

Talking about network effects, what’s the point of a social network anyway? Most of the information shared doesn’t seem to be important, trivial even.

It has a very legitimate use case in the idea that you can connect with friends that you might not see every day. It’s wonderful. For example, I’m an aspiring artist. I share much of the things I draw and the stories I write with many of my friends on different social networks. I don’t do it to inflate my own ego, but rather to share it with friends who I know would appreciate it. It’s a different method of communicating, in many ways it’s a step forward from what email can provide. When you think about it, the accessibility of the social web makes communication trivially easy.

Decentralised technologies can help people that are activists. Twitter is infamous for censoring a lot of tweets during the Egyptian revolution not too long ago and many of these companies have obligations to governments in different countries – they have to assure that people can be censored for their services to keep working there, otherwise they as a business risk getting shut down themselves. Decentralised technology is much harder to censor; it’s much harder to shut the people up that are using it. So, I think in a lot of ways activism is a wonderful use case, it is one of the more proactive sides of having open web technology.

Where do I go if I want to find out more about diaspora*? Is there a central hub?

This is actually something we have been addressing as a community. We’ve been working for the past couple of months together to put all of our information on to an official website. ►