Diaspora hype

I want to love Diaspora, I really do. It is entirely about an open, controllable and free social networking system. It is being created by ‘four talented young programmers’ (their words) who clearly have passion and enthusiasm, and its aspirations are quaint but highly admirable:

We are 140-character ideas. We are the pictures of your cat. We are blog posts about the economy. We are the collective knowledge that is Wikipedia. The internet is a canvas – of which, we paint broad and fine strokes of our lives with. It is a forward extension of our physical lives; a meta-self comprised of ones and zeros. We are all that is digital: If we weren’t, the internet wouldn’t either.”


I want Diaspora to succeed. I share the ideals. I believe in the right of people to own their own data and data about themselves. I believe that that the only right way forward in this field is in distributed, modular and open technologies. I believe that there are many ways to do this and Diaspora might be able to exploit one or two of them.

And yet, ignoring for the moment the complete absence of anything tangible from the Diaspora team apart from a few chummy videos and vague hints they are working with a few familiar standards and protocols…

Mark Zuckerberg. Apparently he sees younger versions of himself in them and so has funded them. Actually, spooky though that is, I think the explanation is way more sinister than that. If (as I fear it will) it spectacularly fails or runs out of steam, the faithful lose a little more faith and Zuckerberg wins. If, as is also pretty likely, it slowly fragments and Balkanises, the effect is the same – and the opportunity to introduce a little Facebook integration poison to make that even more likely is one Zuckerberg will be unlikely to miss. If it is successful, then he has the ties and leverage to make Facebook an integral part of it all, which will allow him to claim both openness (ha) and revenue.

I think Zuckerberg must know that Facebook in its current form is cruising towards eventual meltdown. The brilliant cold exploitation of Reid’s Law and Metcalfe’s Law that makes it so successful is also what makes it unsustainable in the long term as long as it stays closed and centralised. It may have another half billion users to go before it finally breaks (right now it’s hard to see how without a lot of restructuring, but there are some very smart people working in that company who will probably find ways to forestall the inevitable collapse for some while longer)  but, at some point, if it is to grow further it *has* to move to a more variegated and distributed model, to become part of a broader ecosystem with greater diversity and differentiation. If he can influence or maybe even control that ecosystem at the basic level of its virtual physics, he wins. Even if not, in the best case scenario that Diaspora gains traction and comes to compete or even dominate, the opportunity to study the enemy from the point of inception will put Facebook in a far stronger position to react and counter-attack.

I’d also love to know what they signed away to him when they took that money.  I hope it was nothing.

There is another possible motivation for Zuckerberg’s apparent generosity though that is maybe the simplest: it diverts attention away from other initiatives that actually have good working code, have communities, have backing and have potential to succeed, such as:

  • Noserub: http://noserub.com/
  • One Social Web: http://onesocialweb.org/
  • Appleseed: http://opensource.appleseedproject.org/

and many others (e.g. 6D, Kopal, DiSo). While a few are only a little more advanced than Diaspora (that barely exists outside the hype), many are way further on and some, like OneSocialWeb, have serious backing.

We need the innovative and open ideas like those that drive these four young programmers. We need the ideas they are borrowing and using even more. We need systems that are both open and controlled by their users at every level. But I fear Diaspora may not be the answer. The only thing that really heartens me about the ludicrously overblown hype it is attracting is that it draws more attention to what is wrong with the centralised cloud models, helping to drive people into more diverse and trustworthy spaces over which they can have some confidence in control of their data and trust in the guardians of them.

Address of the bookmark: http://www.joindiaspora.com/2010/08/26/overdue-update.html

I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor and Associate Dean, Learning & Assessment, at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology, and I teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems. I am a proud Canadian, though I was born in the UK. I am married, with two grown-up children, and three growing-up grandchildren. We all live in beautiful Vancouver.

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