Being discrete: With the Diaspora social network, it’s easy to create new “aspects,” groups into which you’ve sorted your contacts. You can then share status updates across all aspects, with only one, or with a few.
Judging Diaspora’s success at achieving its stated goal of giving users full control over their data is tougher for me, as a nonexpert in computer security. I like the site’s transparent user interface and its use of Web-standard security protocols like https (the same protocol used by banks and online merchants to transfer your financial data) to send all information. The system is distributed over many public and private servers it calls seeds, and all communication between them is encrypted, again using a Web-standard protocol, this time the open Gnu Privacy Guard (GPG).
The developers of Diaspora envision each user ultimately hosting his or her own seed and housing personal data exclusively on that seed—the opposite of today’s usual approach to information storage, in which everything resides in cloud computing environments owned by different companies. What they’re building is a system that allows these seeds to communicate smoothly and intuitively, an application that hasn’t existed before. Because most of today’s Web users just aren’t up to the hassle of hosting a personal Web server, the developers created the joindiaspora.com hub to make using the system easy for nontechnical consumers who worry about their online privacy.
There are downsides to the current implementation. Clean and simple though the site is, Diaspora could use a few more labels. It took me a while to figure out that the gray box at the top of every screen was a text-entry field, not decoration, and it took a few random entries to realize it’s actually a handy search box, allowing you to hunt for contacts using their real names or Diaspora handles.
The main hub, at joindiaspora.com, also tends to load and run slowly. The servers are not as reliable as those of more established services, and outages occur randomly and last varying amounts of time. In fact, I was locked out of my original account just a day after creating it, and after a couple of attempts, the team “solved” the problem by issuing me a new invitation to set up a second account. (Whether I’ll ever be able to get back into my original account is another question.)
It may not be a big deal for the geeks who are its initial members—or for those who will likely be the backbone of any future Diaspora users—but the site does not support Microsoft’s Internet Explorer browser, only “modern” browsers such as Firefox, Opera, Chrome, and Safari.
Whether Diaspora will remain uncluttered is also uncertain. The team is developing new features, including plug-ins that will enable two-way functions such as chat and gaming. As Salzberg noted during our correspondence about my account lock-out, “We are VERY alpha.”
Still, Diaspora is a service I’ll continue to log into over time. I hope it will supplant my Facebook addiction and keep my data just that—mine.