Want CNET to notify you of price drops and the latest stories?

Facebook has problems, Diaspora isn't one of them

Diaspora, a new "anti-Facebook" open-source social network, responds to Facebook's privacy problems, but will struggle for users if it remains overly complex.

Matt Asay Contributing Writer
Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.
Matt Asay
3 min read

Diaspora Project

The bigger a company becomes on the Web, the more likely it is to be accused of privacy violations. Google has been fending off privacy concerns for years, but it's now Facebook's time in the limelight.

An increasing number of people are concerned about Facebook's privacy policies. And while some are reportedly looking to jump off the Facebook train, most continue to complain...on Facebook.

Enter the Diaspora project, an open-source social network that eliminates the midddleman, the "anti-Facebook."

Diaspora attempts to solve Facebook's privacy problems at the infrastructure layer, using a decentralized, peer-to-peer approach. Unfortunately, this approach has the potential to limit the service's appeal by introducing complexity, as ReadWriteWeb explains:

Because not everyone will be technically capable of (or interested in) setting up their computer to function as a "seed," there are plans to offer a paid turn-key service too, similar to Wordpress.com, the blogging platform. Wordpress itself is software you can install and configure on your own server, if you're inclined to do so, but if you're less technically-savvy, you can opt to quickly start a blog via Wordpress.com instead. Diaspora would function in a similar way.

In other words, if you care deeply about a decentralized social-networking service and have the technical chops to set it up, Diaspora provides a way to do that. For everyone else, there's a somewhat centralized Web site.

This is progress?

Let's be clear: one of the primary reasons for Facebook's success is that it disintermediates the complexity that makes it hard for 400 million (and counting) people to connect to each other. For Diaspora to compete, it needs to be more than merely open: it actually needs to be better at connecting hordes of people simply, casually, easily.

As Identi.ca, the open-source Twitter clone, has shown, there's a niche market for those who prize openness over other considerations. But it's niche. The mainstream doesn't have time to set up seeds or otherwise follow openness for openness' sake.

I don't foresee Diaspora ever breaking into that mainstream because it's starting from the wrong premise: it treats privacy and decentralization as its primary goals. This isn't how users see it, though. For most people, privacy is a secondary concern (though it is a concern). The primary concern is connecting with friends and family.

So long as network effects favor Facebook, Diaspora users will remain few and far between.

If anything, the best Diaspora can hope for is to help prod Facebook to improve its privacy policies and communication about them. This is an area that Facebook recognizes it needs to improve, as Elliot Schrage, vice president for public policy at Facebook, notes in a recent interview:

It's clear that despite our efforts, we are not doing a good enough job communicating the changes that we're making. Even worse, our extensive efforts to provide users greater control over what and how they share appear to be too confusing for some of our more than 400 million users. That's not acceptable or sustainable. But it's certainly fixable. You're pointing out things we need to fix...

I sincerely hope that Diaspora can help motivate Facebook to improve how it handles users' privacy. I just don't think that it provides compelling competition for mainstream Facebook users who need ease of use before they need to be worrying about "seeds" and such.

In this is a lesson for all open-source projects: openness is a means to an end of serving users. It is not the end in and of itself.