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Why Diaspora will fail

There's been a lot of buzz lately about Diaspora, with its being called "the new Facebook alternative" and getting treated like some sort of social networking Holy Grail for privacy. It even set a record for start-up fundraising site Kickstarter by raising over $170,000 in pledges.

Everyone seems pretty excited about the prospect of some magical new social network that will be private, secure, and "owned" by the users instead of evil corporate monsters. And who wouldn't be? I mean, it sounds great in principle, but with all of the excitement stirred up over the last week, nobody's bothered to talk about the harsh reality that it's all nothing more than a pipe dream.

...A very well-funded pipe dream.

Take a look at what these kids are selling for a moment -- and yes, I said kids, because that's what they are, kids. There isn't even a product here, just a promise, and it's being made by four fixie-hipster computer science majors at NYU who can't even act mature for the four minutes needed to film the video they somehow thought necessary to sell their "idea" to the masses.

What's this super-amazing, fantastical idea they've come up with? It's a distributed social network that would exist as individual nodes, called seeds, which would be owned and operated by the users of the network. Why seeds, you ask? Well, it might have something to do with a little open source project that's been floating around for a few years now, since this idea is so strikingly similar to one that was tried for the first time, in 2005, with a project called Appleseed.

Aside from the fact that it's written with more than a basic high school-level grasp of the English language (which is more than I can say for the incoherent babbling that's been splattered all over the Diaspora pages), the first thing you'll likely notice on the Appleseed project page is that it sounds exactly like Diaspora. The resemblance between the two ideas is truly uncanny -- just read the opening paragraphs from the original Appleseed page on Sourceforge:

The Appleseed Project is an effort to create open source Social Networking software that is based on a distributed model. For instance, a profile on one Appleseed website could "friend" a profile on another Appleseed website, and the two profiles could interact with each other.

Apart from being distributed, Appleseed will also have a strong focus on privacy and security, as well as a commitment to seeing the user as an online citizen, as opposed to a consumer to be targetted. This is in stark contrast to current social networking websites, who rely heavily on ad placement and data mining of their users.

According to Michael Chisari, developer of the project, Appleseed is not meant to be installed and run by non-technically oriented users from their home PC's. He says that it's instead targeted at people with servers or hosting accounts at the ready, not your average soccer-mom.

But there are reasons that so few people have ever heard of Appleseed. From a general, public perspective, it failed. The project spent about two solid years in development before Chisari was forced to put it on the backburner in late 2007 due to a serious lack of time and funding -- only to resurrect it in full swing the moment Diaspora started showing up in everyone's newsreaders.

Maybe if start-up fundraising websites like Kickstarter were as big during Appleseed's infancy as they are today, as the entire Web seems obsessed with start-ups now, then the project might have actually gotten some recognition. Maybe it wouldn't have made a difference at all, since it's already taken this long for people to get so fed up with Facebook and its privacy woes for anyone to really start talking about viable alternatives. While we can't know for sure how things would have panned out had there been an influx of funding back then like Diaspora's experiencing now, we do know what the average social-networking user expects today, and it's generally free. Not just free of any cost, but free from effort as well.

Appleseed might not have faded so deep to the background had it been funded, but that doesn't mean that the average user would have picked up on it. The overwhelming likelihood is that regardless of funding, unless Chisari was willing to open up a free hosting service akin to, then Appleseed wouldn't be any better off. Appleseed is free and open source, and it has been for a very long time. The biggest reason that nobody's ever heard of it is because nobody wanted it.

Nobody wanted to bother hosting an Appleseed social-networking nodal site because, as wonderful as the idea sounds, it's just not practical in terms of large scale adoption. Not at this point in time. The project silently died and faded away because only a handful of people would even bother to go through the trouble of setting it up, since the point of an actual social network is that there are many people using it. When you have to host your own website to be part of a social network, you may as well just host your own blog, because there really isn't much difference at that point anyway. At least users of places like Tumblr, Blogger, or Wordpress have free hosting services as an option.

So now Diaspora enters the scene, and it does it in a way that uses more buzzwords and catchphrases than a politician during an election year. It's essentially the same old tune, but it's attempting to sell the idea to everyone. Are they going to try selling Mac Minis with Diaspora asterisks plastered all over them? My guess is that it's very likely, and at prices that would make even Apple owners cringe. Are they going to use that huge influx of cash to set up a datacenter and offer free hosting like Tumblr? Doubtful. They are hinting at a paid-membership hosting service, but that brings us back to the question of who on earth would pay money for a social network? Do they actually expect users to host their own nodes -- sorry, seeds -- on their home broadband connections? It's difficult to imagine that many users would devote the time or money to rent or run a real server for this, much less bog their connection down by turning their desktop into a server -- and that's not even mentioning the vast amount of people who only own laptops.

But that's the really funny part; the kids behind Diaspora have been pretty careful about not actually explaining in direct terms that the nodes in their proposed network require servers to be running in order for the users' profile pages to display when somebody goes to look them up online. In fact, they step around that annoying little tidbit so much that I was only able to find it stated once in all the flowery, badly written propaganda that they've written:

Diaspora aims to be a distributed network, where totally separate computers connect to each other directly, will let us connect without surrendering our privacy. We call these computers 'seeds'. A seed is owned by you, hosted by you, or on a rented server.

Ever since writing it plainly in one of their earliest posts, the Diaspora crew have used vague wording to tiptoe around the issue as much as possible, lest any would-be contributors resist donating once they realize that this won't be as easy as opening a Facebook account. On the Kickstarter proposal page, they use the phrase "personal web server" once when quickly and tersely describing the project in the opening paragraph. Then, in the side-column, they offer anyone who donates $2,000 or more a brand new computer specifically "configured" to host Diaspora. Again, it had better at least be a Mac Mini, because I'm having a hard time coming up with any reason that a server for this sole purpose should cost so much money. Also, because of the ridiculous dollar figure, the wording they use would probably make the average user think that running their own Diaspora-equipped computer is some sort of luxury option, not a requirement.

The Bottom Line

The more technical crowds would understand that Diaspora will depend on users installing it on actual physical machines or remotely run, rented servers to work. Maybe five or six bored geeks out of every hundred might even bother installing it, and out of that handful, a few might keep it running longer than a month. The rest would recognize that it's not worth the effort or bandwidth when so few people would ever even use the service.

The overwhelming majority of Facebook users who are getting so excited at the prospect of some flashy, new, ultra-private social network with a catchy name -- a name presented in Helvetica and completed with a superfluous asterisk -- have no idea how the network is supposed to work. Many of these people are likely the ones who donated so much money to the project, especially since a big selling point used to get people to donate higher amounts is that they'll get an actual CD mailed to them along with access to free phone support.

Oh yes, they're already planning on making money off of phone support.

The bottom line here is that so few people will ever use this vaporware (were it ever to materialize in the first place) that it simply won't succeed. It doesn't stand a chance against a network like Facebook -- no matter how evil it may be -- because Facebook isn't evil by accident. Its massive numbers of users allow it to be that way. If the majority of people actually cared enough about their online privacy, then they'd leave Facebook. They don't, so it's difficult to imagine that these kids will ever see their little cloned project become a network of 10,000 users, much less one that includes "every man, woman, and child" like they actually had the audacity to state as their end-of-summer goal.

Basically, if you donated money to these guys, you didn't participate in some grand assault against Facebook's foothold on the Internet. You probably paid for 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. And why shouldn't they? They only asked for $10,000 in pledges. They've just pulled off a heist worthy of a bad Hollywood movie.

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Tags: Diaspora, Facebook, fail, features, kickstarter, open source, OpenSource, privacy, social networking, SocialNetworking, start-ups