Initial impressions of Diaspora: an anarchist social network design?

Originally published at The Benfell Blog. Please leave any comments there.

NOTE: The information on this page will be updated on EarthWiki.

About the time I first started the current incarnation of this site, Facebook was facing severe criticism for its privacy policies. And that very much affected how I thought about privacy. Also about that time, some folks started working on a new social network, with a fundamentally different model of privacy, that would be open source, and that would allow users to control what information they shared.

Diaspora is here. Sort of.

I’ve got it running and I’m allowing people to sign up without an invitation.

It’s alpha, which means it is still early in the development stages and guaranteed to have bugs. One of those bugs is that profile photographs are broken. Very few people are on it so you’ll have to invite your friends—but you’ve only got five invitations, which is why I’m leaving the door open to sign-ups.

It’s pretty bare bones. At this point, you basically have the capability to post messages and photographs to friends in all or some of what are called “aspects,” which are Diaspora’s way of allowing you to group your contacts so you control whom you are sharing what information with. But they’ve done a very nice job with the web design—it is visually appealing.

The privacy aspects appear serious. Even running a “pod” on my server, I appear to have little administrative control. I could kill the jobs running Diaspora. I can start them. I can try to keep the software up to date. And that’s it. I suppose it is possible to hack the database to search for information, but there are no administrative features to Diaspora. Basically, I’m just another user and unless people tell me what they’re doing on Diaspora, even on my pod, I really have no way of knowing.

That means that I also cannot censor what other users do, short of taking the site down. Facebook has earned ire from its users for censoring breastfeeding photographs and deleting animal rights activists. I don’t even have those options. It looks like the closest thing to an anarchist social media site in web 2.0.

I’m also in the dark about maintenance and software updates. Hopefully someone will answer those questions soon. Because while the documentation is barely adequate to get a Diaspora pod running, it is clear that the development is proceeding apace—even over Thanksgiving.

This is looking good, but challenging Facebook, which long ago established itself as what I call the “town square” of the Internet, is not trivial. The way I’m guessing this happens is that each Facebook privacy outrage will peel away users and Diaspora will increasingly be available as an alternative. Perhaps at some point, a critical mass will be reached, when Facebook goes the way of MySpace, essentially becoming irrelevant. We’ll see.