I recently learned of a project being developed by four NYU students with money raised through Kickestarter.org. The whole point of the project is to replace the giant personal-information-hoarding networks like Facebook and MySpace with a social network that puts you in control of your personal data.
Diaspora is currently under development and the team hopes to have it up and running for a small user base this summer with the main launch towards September. Diaspora is an open-source, decentralized social network allowing individual members to connect directly instead of through a main hub. That means that you would host your own copy of the social network software on your computer and your computer would communicate directly with each of your friend’s computers. Decentralizing the network allows a user to keep their private information on their own computer, instead of passing it through a third-party server where their data is collected and sold to advertisers. As users become more aware of the amount of data they are leaking from their Facebook profiles, services like Diaspora will sound enticing.
I think these guys are really onto something here, especially considering Facebook’s latest move to get their fingers into your web experience through Facebook Connect. (as discussed here) Facebook Connect is a major intrusion into a user’s privacy and does not set well with the user base. It could end up being Facebook’s demise.
Though the prognosis might sound bleak for online advertisers wishing to reach the millions of people who use social networks, creative advertisers will find a way to get through. The key will likely be a model similar to the iPhone and iPad; apps and plugins supported by advertisers. Since the software is based on an open source platform, anyone can develop plugins and apps to augment the experience.
Here are a few challenges that Diaspora needs to overcome:
- It might be difficult to reach a large audience and convince them that their solution is superior enough to Facebook to make the user switch. That might be a bit challenging considering a lot of Facebook users are still trying to figure out all the functionality of their current system. Terms like “seed” and “decentralized network” and “open-source” might be enough to scare people off.
- Another challenge is the potential barrier-to-entry associated with setting up the software. A user will either have to setup their own installation on their computer, or setting it up on a third-party service much like the majority of WordPress blogs. (WordPress blogs can either be setup on your own server, or you can setup a blog at whatever.wordpress.com.)
- One of the biggest challenges might be updates. If a user doesn’t install the latest software updates, they could put their computer at risk.
I’m going to watch the development of Diaspora closely. If these guys pull it off, they will reshape the web as we know it.