Diaspora*, Ello, and the Search for the Anti-Facebook

I just finished reading “More Awesome Than Money” by Jim Dwyer about the rise and “fall” of Diaspora as a viable alternative to Facebook. I’ve often thought of Diaspora* as something that “came and went”; much of the story had passed when I heard about it, but while the project started in 2010, the story of Diaspora* continues through the Snowden era, so very much recent history.

For me personally, it was the Snowden dump that prompted me to take a look at the software, as I’ve been looking to decentralize my digital life since then. Before I read the book, this is what I knew about Diaspora*, and I suspect the public narrative is similar:

  1. With a lot of hype as the “Anti-Facebook”, they raised a ton of money on Kickstarter, including a sizable donation from Zuckerberg himself.
  2. The first version was released with a number of security problems.
  3. The software never really got traction despite the hype.
  4. One of the founding members commit suicide, which sucked the wind out of the remaining team…
  5. …who eventually abandoned the project, turning the software over to the community, where it’s joined a number of niche open-source social networking software.

The story told by Dwyer isn’t that different, though the full story of how it happened sheds a lot of insight into why it never Diaspora* never really got traction. They were basically kids, and the whole thing blew up to be a lot bigger than anyone expected. They had no plan.

This hype is basically the same problem Ello has1 now: The network was in beta, but the hype was so significant, it was doubling in size every 3-4 days. My experience with Ello was as an equally buggy and irritating interface, and while Diaspora*’s first version was intended to be a developer release, the version was extremely buggy. According to Dwyer’s book, those security holes were patched quite quickly, but the perception would haunt the project for a long time.

But even if “the hype” has its drawbacks, and may actually be harmful to some of these fledgling networks, what the hype does say is this: People really don’t like Facebook. They didn’t like it 5 years ago, and they don’t like it now. Even though we haven’t come up with an alternative that we like better, it’s inevitable that Facebook’s dominance will eventually be undone. How long will be people use something they regularly rebel against?

One of the complaints about Diaspora*, at least from the Free Software people, was that it wasn’t being developed in the open. While the team was dismissive of this complaint, a lot of the perception problems they had on the developer release was related to expectations setting a “release” engendered. Even if they didn’t include anyone’s code contributions during that time and hemmed to their vision, it would have helped managed user expectations as well as get feedback from other developers about some of these security concerns well in advance of ever calling it a release. Plus if you’re going to do open-source, do it right.

It’s also very difficult to start a new social network without it feeling like a ghost town. Google+ still suffers from that perception despite a serious userbase, and Diaspora* had to overcome this problem. And Ello is already a ghost town, as people fall back into their routine. One of Diaspora*’s developers wasn’t even a heavy user of the software, which makes it a kinda difficult to figure out what your users want.

But despite the difficulties any of these challengers faced, it seems pretty to clear to me, then as now, people really want a viable alternative to Facebook. Diaspora*, with a modest aim of $20,000 and a summer of development, turned into $200,000 in donations and a several year project.

These are surmountable problems for an open-source social network. We can integrate with already existing social networks. We can develop in the open. The biggest problem is making these networks work for non-developers, and not only on a technical level. Running your own server, or even running a website on a basic web host, often suffers a perception problem of being overly complicated.

  1. Or had, if you’re really cynical. 

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This post is part of the following threads: Ello, The Revolution That Really Wasn't, The Case for Our (Digital) Space - ongoing stories on this site. View the thread timelines for more context on this post.