The net is ablaze with Facebook’s privacy disaster and the Diaspora project has already drummed up over $170000 in support. And the question everyone is asking is: Is Diaspora going to be the Facebook that we all want? The answer would be complicated even if there wasn’t money and so many high hopes involved. Going up against the incumbent is never easy, even if the incumbent is in a tight spot. Even though I love open source, I can’t help having some doubts over the Diaspora project.
An open source, community centric alternative to Facebook would be absolutely awesome, no doubt about that. But there are problems with both the idea in general and the way Diaspora is specifically implementing it. A lot of Facebook’s usefulness comes from the fact that it offers a seamless way to do a number of different things. When it comes to sharing something with friends, Facebook probably has a way to do it. You can share text, links, music, photos and videos all through Facebook. You can also send them in public (via the Wall) or in private with the private message system. An open source solution could work by tying together open protocols to support specific parts of the user experience. However, that integration has to be smooth and very well done. In fact, users should not be able to tell that there are multiple services operating underneath, instead of a single monolithic entity. If people need to sign up with five different services to do what they do with one login on Facebook, the project is dead in the water.
By allowing each user to run their own server, Diaspora is trying to make their system as open as possible. That’s a great idea, but expecting each internet user to operate their own server is not a good way to go. Opera tried that with it’s Unity project which has been pretty much a failure. Users do not want to run a server. They want to talk to their friends. I think what the Diaspora team wants to do is build on the WordPress model: the actual software is fully open source and anyone can put it on their own server and run it. But there is also WordPress.com which offers an easy-to-use setup that you can use without worrying about server administration. Diaspora can go that path, but they will have to live with the fact that the majority of users will be using a hosted solution and not running their own server. And I’m not sure if that is something they are ready to do.
There is also the problem that Jason Fried points to: the team already has a lot of money (a lot for 4 people at least) and have nothing to show for it yet. They also have had a lot of attention turned on to them and are under great pressure to deliver. I’m not saying that is necessarily a problem: I know people who thrive under pressure. But it would probably be easier if they had a smaller amount of money and could concentrate on getting things done instead of worrying about how everyone is looking at them. Without knowing the team personally, I don’t know if this is a valid concern, but it’s definitely something to keep in mind. It’s also a stark contrast to how Facebook grew: from Harvard alum to college students and then to everyone.
No one wants Diaspora to fail. And that by itself could be a problem. If Diaspora does fail, they could take all the other open source efforts down with them. And that would mean handing identity on the web to Facebook on a silver platter. Will Diaspora work? I don’t know. In cases like this I go by Torvalds’ words: Talk is cheap, show me the code. I’m going to reserve judgment until I actually see some code. I hope they succeed, I really want them to. I love how Facebook let’s me stay in touch with friends, but I hate walled gardens. However, there are issues and concerns which must be answered. So until summer ends and the Diaspora team delivers, I’m going to watch and wait. And not delete my Facebook account just yet.