Last week, I joined Diaspora.
Not the Diaspora—I didn’t convert to Judaism or emigrate anywhere. Instead, I accepted a coveted (by geeks) invitation to sign up for Diaspora, a decentralized, privacy-focused social network created by four New York University undergrads in response to what has been seen as Facebook’s focus on profits at the expense of users’ privacy.
The foursome officially announced the project on April 24; they released an open-source developer version of the code in mid-September, and invitations to the website’s private alpha (the first phase of testing) began going out on November 23. Though Diaspora is a little buggy, a little underpopulated (I have two contacts, compared with hundreds on other sites), and a little Spartan in the way of features, it is already different in interesting ways from the sites that came before.
Facebook is like a casino: garish, crowded, distracting, designed to lure you in and keep you there far longer than you ever intended. (The same is true of its predecessor, MySpace.) Status updates—not only by actual friends and acquaintances but also from companies, news outlets, celebrities, sports teams—jockey for space with videos, ads, games, chat windows, event calendars, and come-ons to find more people, make more connections, share more data.
Diaspora is more like the calm, minimal workspace of a Zen devotee. Unlike Facebook and its competitors, Diaspora makes it easy to separate your social spheres. Your home page displays your status updates and those of your online friends, along with lists of your contacts and the categories, called “aspects,” into which you’ve sorted them. The default aspects are work and family, but adding new aspects is as easy as opening a new tab in a Web browser. You can craft a status update to share across all aspects, with only one, or with a few, and it’s very clear on every page which information has gone out to which groups.
This simplicity and clarity have been key design objectives for the Diaspora team from the start. In a blog update posted during development over the summer, they remarked on “spending a good chunk of time concentrating on building clear, contextual sharing. That means an intuitive way for users to decide, and not notice deciding, what content goes to their coworkers and what goes to their drinking buddies.” The investment shows, and it’s a huge contrast to the complicated and hidden privacy controls in Facebook.
Another difference is the ease of sharing—or not—your Diaspora content with Facebook and Twitter. Rather than making such connections difficult to find and use, the site makes it easy to connect to other services, and it offers the option of sharing any public upload via Facebook, Twitter, or RSS, simply by clicking a box. In the long run, says cofounder Maxwell Salzberg, Diaspora should be service-agnostic and able to import and export data from any Web service, in nearly any format. The goal isn’t to replace Facebook or any other service as a way to interact online but to eliminate the need to store private data on multiple websites, many of which seem geared to an all-or-nothing sharing of personal information.
The “like” button is nowhere to be seen on Diaspora. You comment on a post, or don’t. I’m curious to see how this will affect my online interactions. I confess that I am frequently guilty of “liking” friends’ Facebook updates; it’s much easier than taking the time to comment and interact with someone on even Facebook’s typically perfunctory level. Diaspora is also less intrusive: rather than sending you an e-mail by default every time someone comments on your status or on a friend’s status that you’ve commented on, you see content only when you log in. This does make it easier to lose track of online “conversations”—but wow, what a relief to my always-overcrowded inbox.