Letter from the Diaspora*

A recurrent debate about  social networks is the concern for the uses of the data we generate in social platforms and its compatibility with privacy and ethics. This has been the main motive behind the creation of “privacy-based social networks” of which probably the latest exemplar is Omlet from Stanford. There have been other notable attempts in that direction as friendica, that currently can integrate contacts from Facebook and Twitter in their social streams. However, after some research on this kind of platforms, I found Diaspora* to be the most paradigmatic example. The philosophy behind Diaspora* is faithfully captured in the mottos in this image:

diaspora-791x1024

The motivation seems clear, doesn’t it?

I decided to register in Diaspora* and feel the experience. According to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, a diaspora is:

a group of people who live outside the area in which they had lived for a long time or in which their ancestors lived

Moving to Diaspora* feels like that, after having lived for several years at various on-line social networks. The interface looks like Facebook, but you have “aspects” that are similar to Google+ circles. Also, an important difference is that Diaspora* is not hosted in a single site, but you register at one of the many independently run “pods”, that communicate to each other but are separated. This is a realization of the interesting idea of distributed social networks, that has profound architectural implications.

I was able to connect to some other colleagues via their peculiar way of unidirectional associations – more like “following” in Twitter as you can follow a colleague and have it included in your aspects, but that friend may not have included you. I did it just sending to their emails my id, which is local to my pod. Also, I registered for some videogame topics and got a stream of public posts. Looks nice, easy to use and familiar.

However, the main problem that Diaspora* faces is basically adoption. The latest 2014 figures I found say it has now 1 million accounts. This is still small but notable for a recently created social network, and of course we cannot  compare this situation with the one in which Facebook took off, as nowadays there are many social platforms competing, and there is a clear user lock-in. Nonetheless, the open and privacy-focus of the network is a plus for many users, especially as the software is open source, and the foundation is backed by  the Free Software Support Network (FSSN). The FSSN is in turn run by Eben Moglen and the Software Freedom Law Center.

There are other features that make Diaspora* different, concretely I found very appealing their support for pseudonyms, as a way of having freedom of self-expression . But it is also more simply a way of splitting our social activity with several accounts, for example, one for proffesional use with our real name, and maybe others with our pen name or gaming nick name. This is something natural to the culture of the Web, and supporting this is just commonsense.

Going to the functional side, I still had no time to dig into the architecture, but one critical point that is missing is some sort of API to get information from Diaspora* pods. Of course respecting the privacy that is defined by the mechanism of aspects. Also, the network is now Facebook-like, but there is no way to make a sort of public vitae or proffesional profile like in LinkedIn, which we typically want to make public for employment opportunities or business contacts.

My advice for everybody is to test Diaspora* by creating an account and getting a feeling of its possibilities. It has a big potential and it is for sure a development to follow in the next months. Particularly, I am eager to learn more on its internals and the protocols that make it distributed!

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2 thoughts on “Letter from the Diaspora*

  1. Nice model. This reminds me of an article I read long ago about the relationship between social networks and people/users. The article claimed that, as in real life, users are independent so their data should be kept by them only, and those social websites/services/platforms should be like bars in real like, you go there to meet your friends but after a few drinks you would later move to another, different, bar or perhaps to a cinema. Or stop popping up in a place because you no longer like it. In such model, social websites would compete to each other in terms of the services they offer. Just like bars, I go to my fab pub because the waitress is nice and they serve the best beer in town 😉

  2. Nice to see someone into webscience writing about Diaspora* . First of all you are right about architectural implications of distributed social networks. Infact web started out as a decentralised service. All we had were machines serving pages and machines requesting for them , now when we add the entire cloud perspective , the web we had is being modified into something more hierarchical with few companies giving services and are holding all our data. https://www.softwarefreedom.org/news/2010/feb/10/highlights-eben-moglens-freedom-cloud-talk/ gives the summary of Eben Moglens talk at debconf.
    Diaspora* comes on the social networking side and now coming to very specific comment on less users and less activity. Yes the million accounts are just a number. I have been a user since the beginging and D* attracts really the special serious type of crowd who are very clear about free software. Hence the tags like #Libre , #linux and if it comes to free culture tags even cities like #berlin are very active.
    Your blog post is prety old and I am also not sure how effectively you have enjoyed the discussion / community part of Diaspora ? Now there have been a splurge of users from Germany in the german pod https://pod.geraspora.de/tags/berlin and also Framasoft which is a french organisation caring about free software. https://framasphere.org/tags/libre Its been really a very active year in Diaspora with lot of active users. I suggest you to come back and first read this nice inroduction by birch which explains how to use tags and find people http://earthandspirit.livejournal.com/38361.html . Just remember to make a post explicitly “public” with tags like #diaspora and #newhere which itself brings you to community discussion.

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