Some people love Facebook, others hate it, and many have a little of both. It can be a great way to keep in contact with old friends and relatives, but it’s also a great way for third parties to harvest loads of free data that may not be used the way you want. Plenty of social sites have popped up over the years in the hopes of dethroning Facebook, but not many have had the goods, or really provided much that would entice a user to switch.
Not long ago, a couple students got together and decided to do something a little different: an open and distributed social network that did not rely on a single company or website to host all the data. Instead, anyone who wishes can create a node for their friends, and users of these nodes can communicate without handing over all their data. This is Diaspora, and right now it’s in some of the early testing phases. We’ve put together an overview of what Diaspora has got now and where it’s likely to go in the future.
Note: This service is currently VERY EARLY in its development, and is far from providing the same level of maturity and functionality found in a mature site like Facebook. Think of this not as a product but as a preview.
Right now, if you don’t wish to run your own server node, you need an invite from JoinDiaspora.com. Invites aren’t terribly hard to come by, particularly since the main page offers a form were you can enter your email and they will send an invitation directly to you. As soon as you’re in, you’re given 5 invites of your own to share with friends.
The profile creation is much like you’d find on any similar site, and asks for basic info like name, birth date, and bio.
The next step is to set up your Aspects. This is somewhat similar to the groups you’d find on other sites, but aspects are built right in to the core of how Diaspora is used (more on that later). In short, aspects allow you to sort your contacts into isolated groups which can be read or posted to individually.
Finally, you can choose any other social sites to connect to your Diaspora. This means that by posting to your Diaspora node, you can automatically have those posts sent to Facebook, Twitter, and presumably other social sites in the future.
Your “default” page is Home, and from here you can read your most recent updates as well as post to your entire network.
Here is where the similarities to Facebook start to fade. As mentioned earlier, Aspects are an important part of how Diaspora operates. Instead of one main page where all updates are read and written, you can instead use the tabs, at the top of the screen, to read or post specifically to certain aspects.
A post to the Family aspect will not show up to people under Work. This is important, as it can help prevent some of the notorious “Oh, I forgot that my boss reads my Facebook” problems we’ve all heard about.
Contacts can span across multiple aspects. Damien, for example, is a work contact and a friend, and Diaspora will allow me to put him in both groups where he will see posts to both aspects.
The biggest complaint many users (including this author) have about Facebook is their horrendous track record regarding user privacy. In fact, this very thing was one of the major motivating factors in the design of Diaspora.
This is done in three ways: by aspects, by node isolation, and by the fact that no one “owns” or “controls” Diaspora as a whole. Data posted to one aspect is not shared with another, each node holds its own user data that is not propagated across the whole network, and the software itself is free and open source. Combined, this means that no user, server, or company has access to everyone’s data. If an individual node becomes compromised, it does not affect other users on other nodes.
Now before I claiming that Diaspora is bulletproof, I’d like to add another disclaimer about the fact that this system is still in the early stages of development, and quite likely still has some security issues to iron out. However, presuming the server software itself is secure, I believe it’s reasonable to say that the basic design philosophy of Diaspora is much more privacy-friendly than that of many other social services.
It’s still rough, it’s still missing a LOT of features we’ve come to expect from such services, and there aren’t very many users yet. That said, Diaspora clearly has some great design elements, and it’s this author’s opinion that the decentralized node system is probably Diaspora’s “killer feature“. Even if it does not succeed in knocking down Facebook, it’s all but guaranteed that Diaspora will spur innovation in the field, and that’s something that will benefit everyone.