Last winter, I wrote in this space about Diaspora*, a new free software-based, decentralized, privacy-aware social networking service developed by four computer science students at New York University.
At the time, Diaspora* was in the very early “alpha” stage of development and access to the service was by invitation only.
Right now, there are probably a couple of dozen “Pods” (servers) up and running on the Net and for all intents and purposes, Diaspora* is open for business!
What’s different about Diaspora*?
First of all, unlike Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and others, there is no single central server system that stores all of your personal data, logs what links you click on, or reads what you post both publicly and privately so that they can serve up advertising content to you.
Anybody with the skills and the time on their hands can put up a Diaspora* “Pod” (server). All of the instructions for doing it are on the Diaspora* website. You might not know how to do this yourself, but you might know some folks who do. Or, maybe your union or an organization that you belong to could put up a server.
A number of folks running Diaspora* pods have already blown the doors open to the public. Right now, I’m using a community-based site at Diasp.org and have begun inviting some of my Facebook friends to join me.
It doesn’t matter what Pod server you are on, because they all talk to each other.
Diaspora*’s computer source code is free software. This means that anyone who wants to, can modify it to enable Diaspora* to connect to other social networking services or create apps for it.
The central idea is that Diaspora* is run by the users and for the users. You control who sees what.
Having said all of that, Diaspora* is still in the “alpha testing” stage of development. So, right now the service can be on the buggy side. But any software that’s in the alpha testing phase of development is going to be buggy. That’s normal.
Having folks use it enables the Diaspora* development team to figure out what still needs to be fixed and what additional features people want.
You’ll find the user interface quite uncluttered. There are no ads aside from a donate request and an ad for Diaspora* T-shirts. There are no announcements about who became friends with whom and those in charge don’t make suggestions about who you should friend.
You can separate your friends into “Aspects” (a feature Google+ and now Facebook seems to be copying). There are several “default” Aspects and you can create your own. When you create an Aspect you can decide whether to make that list public or not. If you have an Aspect that you call “shitlist” you’ll want to make sure that you make that list private!
You can use Diaspora* to post messages on both Facebook and Twitter, however, for the time being you can’t see posts from Facebook and Twitter in your Diaspora* “Stream,” but it’s in the works.
On Diaspora*, if you want to download all of the personal data you’ve stored on a Pod server to your own computer you just click a button to download everything. Secondly, if you want to close your account forever you can just click a button and you’re done!
Tell me this. Do you know how to close your Facebook account?
There are all kinds of naysayers in the mainstream media who say that the chances of Diaspora* succeeding in its task is impossible given that Facebook has over 500 million users. Millions more are on Twitter and Google+.
But if one looks back 10 years, the majority of folks who made use of the web were using Microsoft’s Internet Explorer web browser. Along came a free software project called Mozilla Firefox which turned that world around. Today, the majority of web surfers use a free software web browser or make use of a web browser that has free software in its core.
If one goes back a little further, to the early 1990s, millions of people around the world were making use of online services like AOL, Compuserve and Prodigy. These services initially only allowed you to talk to other members of those services.
Then in 1992, Tim Berners-Lee developed the World Wide Web. The walls came down and all three of these once mighty online services faded into tech history.
Corporate social networking services have re-created a similar walled world. However, if we play our cards right, these services can end up in the tech dustbin as well.