Why Diaspora will win
Okay, so four CS majors get together and say, "hey, why don't we create something that is like Facebook, but with no privacy concerns?" Two weeks later, they've raised over $100K in pledges.
This could either be hyped-up vaporware (as my DLS colleague Matthew Rogers believes), or it could be something truly great. To see why, and how, it can all work out for the best, continue reading after the fold.
It's About People, First
Diaspora is not a product at this point. Matthew is, of course, correct when he points out that it isn't real as a software product.
But as something else, it is entirely real and tangible: It is a very solid embodiment of what many people feel about Facebook these days and of how passionate those feelings are.
It often seems as though everybody on the Web wants money. In one way or the other, it's true. That's not necessarily bad. However, it does mean that as users and Web surfers, we are very, very leery of giving away any of our hard earned cash.
The Diaspora team set out to raise $10,000, and has gotten over $170,000 so far. This is money from people like you and me. And for every person who did give them money, how many people agree with the project "in principle" but not enough to give them any money?
A conservative estimate would be around 100 "silent supporters" per each person who donated. So, if we have 5,226 people who actually put their money where their mouth is, that works out to roughly half a million users who've heard about the project and want to see it happen. And that's a conservative estimate, given the amount of hits I get when I currently google the project (over two million).
Okay, so what we have established so far is not technical at all but is more in the realm of noise and public relations. To recap:
1) Many people have heard about the project. 2) Many people feel strongly about it. 3) The money raised was not VC capital, rather it came from those same people.
At the very least, the four guys behind Diaspora now have the wherewithal to put up an alpha version. Some would even argue that they have too much money. In addition, the Diaspora guys say they've been contacted by many talented people who want to lend them a hand.
So, all of the elements for success are right there: the money, the people, the peer pressure, and the community. Everything is there, but everything is totally crazy and hectic, too. In fact, I was reminded of a recent Seth Godin post about how some people make their living surfing from project to project. Like Godin says:
"Talk to surfers and they'll explain that the entire sport comes down to the hunt for that blissful moment that combines three unstable elements in combination: the wave is just a little too big to handle, the board is going just a little too fast, and the ride could end at any moment."
So yes, this is one crazy ride. If these kids wipe out, though, they have a lot to lose. This is not something they will be able to live down. I know the theory that says failures are important to succeed, but I'm not the only one who thinks it's really dumb. And this is not just a regular failure with some VC capital that you burn and then say "oops."
If Diaspora never does materialize as a product, some people may claim that the whole thing was a fraud and a hoax. If Matthew's predictions were to come true and the money would be spent mainly on appletinis, I am sure that those same people who cared enough to give them money would care enough to sue them, too.
Yup -- if Diaspora does not deliver an actual application, I'm pretty sure they will get sued for fraud. So, that's the carrot and the stick right there. This is all going down in the most litigious country on Earth after all.
Now let's talk about ...
Diaspora will be distributed; anyone can set up their own node (or "seed") on the network. This is a good thing and is actually at the heart of the project; it will not be owned by some monolithic corporation but by the users themselves.
However, nowhere in the Diaspora site does it say that any given "seed" will be able to host just one user.
Technologically, it will work out to be very similar to Jabber. Jabber (XMPP) is a chat protocol that is widely supported and implemented; it's the protocol that is now powering Facebook's own chat system, Google's Gchat, and a number of other services.
But just like these huge entities can roll out a Jabber server, I can do it on my own. I can just grab the freely available Jabber code, follow some nerdy instructions, and get a server up and running in a few hours' work.
Once I set that server up, nobody can tell me what to do with it. More to the point, nobody can forbid me from hosting other people and letting them use my chat server.
There are numerous examples of this. The same goes with mail servers -- I can set up my own POP3 server on my own domain and open up mailboxes for my friends. Heck, if I feel like it, I can sell them and provide support ... for money!
If it's played right, Diaspora can become an ecosystem. I believe many of my friends would rather use my own Diaspora server (and know I am responsible for their data) than go to some huge corporate monster. So, collective "seeds" would emerge, with several geeks running each seed and hundreds of users hosting their data on it. You would also have companies providing seed hosting just like the Facebook of today. It will all come down to personal choice eventually. All of the seeds would be able to talk to each other, so it wouldn't really matter what seed your profile is hosted on.
This is not rocket science, and there is nothing new here. I think it is obvious that a "seed" would not serve just a single user -- the very notion is absurd and very much out of accord with the norm on the Web today. Once you get that idea out of the way, the technological side becomes very straightforward.
The Way It's Going To Work
In a best case scenario:
1) The Diaspora team grows, possibly adding someone who can write proper English as well. 2) By the end of the summer, they put out an initial version. 3) That version gets grilled and tested. 4) They iterate, fix, release, fix, release. 5) Within a year, we get something that is actually usable. 6) "Mini-Facebooks" start popping up all over the place, with communities setting up their own servers that can then talk to each other. It's like P2P but for social networking.
Of course, I cannot guarantee Diaspora will be an incredible success. Nobody can. However, I can tell you that I would be very surprised if nothing came of it in the end.
And for the worst case scenario, you can always grab an appletini and go read Matthew's post.