Two months ago, four NYU undergrads created a stir in the tech world by raising $200,000 for an open, distributed, and all-around feel-good Facebook alternative called Diaspora.
The Diaspora team’s timing was perfect: in the wake of a series of privacy outrages, anti-Facebook hysteria was at its peak. They put their project on Kickstarter, a service that helps artists and innovators raise money for projects without giving up any equity. Money started flowing in from the outraged masses. Hyperbolic praise followed, leading to yet more money.
And that’s where it should have ended: as a terrific advertisement for Kickstarter. That service gave people an easy way to vent their frustration with Facebook for a few dollars a piece, and made a boatload of money for some college guys with a neat idea. In an article at Download Squad explaining why the whole undertaking was doomed, Matthew Rogers predicted that each donation would go to “an appletini or two (of thousands) that will be consumed over the course of the next few summer months … as they party their faces off.”
That would have made a lot of sense. Instead, they are in San Francisco, coding away, still hoping to get Diaspora off the ground this fall.
So what is Diaspora, exactly?
Everyone did their best to deemphasize the details while the funds were flowing in, but Diaspora is not just another Facebook, but with better privacy controls. Instead, the team wants to provide software for people to seed their social networking profiles themselves, and protocols for sharing them with others. There would be no centralized server that had control of your personal data.
If the notion that average users would ever do anything like that sounds insane, Diaspora’s fans have an answer: there would be centralized servers, lots of them. Third-parties would set up Diaspora seed-hosting services, and you would be able to choose between them. And if you don’t think that would ever happen, and that it would defeat the whole purpose anyway, well, screw you.
In the meantime, as should have surprised absolutely no one, the Facebook privacy uproar has died down, and the company has quietly resumed taking over the Internet. But don’t tell Diaspora. They’ve got a “pre-alpha” demo, of sorts.