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Social Networking in the cloud – Diaspora to challenge facebook

photo of Sepp Hasslberger

Sepp Hasslberger
21st May 2010


Social networking may be about to change. At least that is the intention of four New York students who believe that we should own our data and share what we want, but do so directly – peer2peer – without a central server to go through and without anyone picking our personal data apart or making copies of it for other uses.

The New York Times in an article – Four Nerds and a Cry to Arms Against Facebook – describes how the four students intend to revolutionize the world of social networking.

Facebook is an incredibly useful tool but many users have serious misgivings about the ability and willingness of Zuckerberg’s creation to protect their private data from being laid open and exploited for everything from targeted advertising to intelligence evaluation of one’s personal connections and preferences. Many users are understandably upset about the prospect of finding their intimate data hostage of a company that has every interest to convert that goldmine into cash.

the people who founded diaspora

maxwell daniel raphael ilya - the diaspora founding crew

Enter Diaspora

The project to take back our data from online services is called Diaspora (here is their website) and the intention is to release the software as open source, free code. According to the site, the collection of initial funding went well and largely exceeded expectations, indicating that many feel the need for an open source alternative to those closed, walled-garden social networks that, like facebook, have been growing at an unprecedented pace. Diaspora’s blog gives some of the history of the project and more detail on where it is directed.

There is a video on kickstarter.com where the four explain their project to drum up contributions that will allow them to dedicate the necessary time.

The Diaspora team was inspired by a talk of Eben Moglen on Freedom in the Cloud (highlights posted here) at a recent event. Moglen describes the problem with facebook and other proprietary social networking sites:

    “Our calendar is on the web. Our location is on the web … The deal that you get with the traditional service called telephony now includes a thing you didn’t know like spying. It’s not a service to you. But it’s a service. And you get it for free with your service contract for telephony. You get for free the service of advertising with your Gmail, which of course means there is another service behind, which is untouched by human hands, semantic analysis of your email … And you get free email service and some storage which is worth exactly a penny and a half at the current price of storage…”

The web, which according to Moglen was initially a peer2peer net of computers got transformed into a client/server cast system where the servers have all power and the users (us clients) are increasingly left out in the cold.

    “If you think about it, each step in that architectural evolution away from a network made of peers; to servers that serve the communication with humans beings to clients which are programs running on heavy iron; to clients, which are the computers that people actually used in a fairly dis-empowered state and servers are a high concentration of power in the net; to servers are virtual processes running in clouds of iron at the center of an increasingly hot galaxy and the clients are out there in the dusty spiral arms. All of these decisions architecturally were made without discussion the social consequences long-term.”
    “So we got an architecture that was very subject to misuse, indeed it was begging to be misused. Now we are getting the misuse we set up…There are a lot of reasons for making clients dis-empowered … There are many overlapping rights owners, as they see themselves, each of whom has a stake in dis-empowering a client at the edge of the network. To prevent particular hardware from being moved from one network to another. to prevent particular hardware from playing music not bought at the monopoly of music in the sky.”

And Moglen isn’t amused by Zuckerberg, founder of facebook:

    “The human race has susceptibility to harm but Mr. Zuckerberg has attained an unenviable record. He has done more harm to the human race than anybody else his age. Because he harnessed Friday night, that is, ‘Everybody needs to to get laid,’ and turned into a structure for degenerating the integrity of human personality and he has to remarkable extent succeeded with a very poor deal, namely ‘I will give you free web-hosting and some PHP doodads and you get spying for free all the time’. And it works. How could that have happened? There was no architectural reason. Facebook is the web with, ‘I keep all the logs, how do you feel about that.’ It’s a terrarium for what it feels like to live in a Panopticon built out of web parts. And it shouldn’t be allowed. That’s a very poor way to deliver those services. They are grossly overpriced at ‘spying all the time’, they are not technically innovative. They depend on an architecture subject to misuse and the business model that supports them is misuse. There isn’t any other business model for them. This is bad. I’m not suggesting it should be illegal. It should be obsolete. We’re technologists we should fix it.”

Fixing it won’t be very easy, but the start is made. According to their site, the four are excited at the prospect of getting going with their job.

    “We are really excited that our summer is going to become a reality, and can’t wait to make Diaspora the social application we all need.
    Right now, for the Diaspora team, we have to finish school/graduate. Then, we are going to spend a week or two getting ready for three months of intense coding. We will try and update our blog (and even our Kickstarter) periodically over the summer, but for the most part we are going to be in recluse programmer mode. If you want to see what we are up to, we will be hanging out on the GNU Social mailing list, as well as a few other places as we work on defining some common protocols between like minded projects.”

The New York Times article quotes a teacher of the four:

    “We will have to see how widely this will be adopted by the non-nerds,” Mr. Brunton said. “But I don’t know a single person in the geek demographic who is not freaked out” by large social networks and cyber warehouses of information.”

and Max Salzberg, one of the team’s members, makes a succinct point:

“So many people think it needs to exist,” he says. “We’re making it because we want to use it.”

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