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Leaving Facebook

Will Diaspora provide a social-networking haven for those fed up with Facebook?

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.

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.

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