Google Blogoscoped

Monday, September 27, 2010

Beyond Diaspora: Another Facebook alternative has a head start
By Danny "DPic" Piccirillo

Tension has been mounting for some time between Facebook and its increasingly unhappy users[1]. As the web giant commits one breach of trust after another with no intention of maintaining what level privacy is left for its users, the online world itches for a suitable alternative. While Facebook was able to swiftly supplant MySpace’s monopoly with their own, a much more successful one at that, it will take more than a better competitor to penetrate this market: it will take a better way of social networking altogether, one that, architected upon the same principles of confederation and openness, harmonizes with the nature of the internet itself.

If history is any indication, the current climate sets the tone for the beginning of Facebook’s decline; it may not be long before we see Facebook dethroned as the de facto social network. Those who would like to escape but still want to be able to easily reach friends, family, and colleagues are locked in because the majority of users are still uninformed or complacent. Yet, even those users seem to understand that there is something wrong, but won’t have enough motivation to move until they can no longer reach enough people on Facebook. It’s a case of everyone wanting or being willing to leave, but only when enough others do so first. This is the key to Facebook’s business model.

Facebook owns the network, and they’re bent on asserting complete control over it to secure their place in our lives.

In the mind of Facebook, locking in users by holding their data captive is equally legitimate to actually making them want to stay, and it means more power for them. The problem is very simple. They own every piece of information about you that either you or your friends knowingly or unknowingly submit to them. They control who can see every bit of it, and they control how you can access it. You can bet when you delete something, it isn’t actually gone, that when you set something to private, there’s nothing to keep it that way, that when you want to see anything on Facebook, you’ll have to do it the way Facebook wants.

It would seem uninteresting to reiterate Facebook’s major abuses, there being just so many of them. Wired shook things up when they published an article titled “Facebook’s Gone Rogue; It’s Time for an Open Alternative”.[2] Soon after, the New York Times covered four NYU students working on a project called Diaspora, and we all know the story from there.[3]

There is no one website that will usurp Facebook’s monopoly in the same way Facebook overtook MySpace. Instead, social networking will undergo a transformation much like the one email did. Email might be simple and old-fashioned, but the beauty of it is that it all works using open standards. It wasn’t always that way, though. AOL and different providers were all “walled gardens” and all it took to break them down was the open standards we take for granted today.[4] Thanks to that, users of Google’s email and Microsoft’s email, Riseup’s email and my home-run email server can all talk to each other without needing an account on the same provider.

Now we can imagine a federated social network in much the same way. My Diaspora account can connect with your Unfacebook account, can connect to Richard’s Notmyspace account, and every bit of communication can happen flawlessly between them. This is called federation. We can even take things one step further, and if you don’t like the photo hosting that comes with your Unfacebook account, you could sign up for Deflickr and tie that into your profile. This way, not only can different services talk to each other, but even the different components can be distributed.

There are many such projects, but thus far Diaspora seems to be the only one to garner widespread attention. The developers were able to achieve instant popularity and raise twenty times their initial goal of $10K because to most people, Diaspora is the only project working towards this goal. It’s main asset right now seems to be mindshare, but it’s uncertain how much promise it holds beyond that. With the recent release of their pre-alpha source code, it immediately became apparent just how many security holes and problems are blocking the project.[5][6] It will take a lot of work to fix and will almost certainly be impossible to make their public release as planned.[7] Still, that isn’t to say the project isn’t worth supporting. It absolutely is, but it is not the only one you should know about.

What if there was another effort underway to create a federated social network, but based on a project that has already successfully been incorporated into the business of a Fortune 500 company, implemented in multiple public instances with tens of thousands of users, received funding which totals at a cool $2.3 million, and most importantly, already works with federation?[8][9] The effort is called GNU social, and the project it’s being built on is StatusNet.

StatusNet is a free software, aka “open source”, microblogging platform (e.g. Twitter). It successfully federates, and better yet, Diaspora has promised to implement OStatus, the same set of standards used by StatusNet so that if and when Diaspora goes public, users on each will be able to connect with each other seamlessly. Diaspora also promised to be free software under the GNU AGPL, same as StatusNet.[10] The most popular public instance is and you can sign up to try it for yourself. StatusNet alone may be a suitable replacement for Twitter, but by itself it doesn’t provide the same functionality as Facebook.

This is where GNU Social comes in. GNU social aims to extend the StatusNet to provide the capabilities of a full social network. It will incorporate additional features for controlling privacy settings and sharing pictures or video, and it will display all of this in an interface that’s designed not for a microblogging site, but rather for a complete social networking site. The distinction between GNU social and StatusNet is a bit confusing as they has a unique relationship: when development on the original version of GNU social stalled, the developers looked for another codebase to work on. The result was the social/status alliance, between GNU social and StatusNet. Both projects are co-dependent and contain code from either other, thanks in no small part to the hard work of Craig Andrews of GNU social, and Evan Prodromou of StatusNet.

Prospective users should sit tight as more test instances are deployed and GNU social becomes more widely available. Developers, on the other hand, can download the source code to hack on and install on their own servers. Otherwise, anyone can also support the project by purchasing some buttons or a FooPlug, a small plug in server that comes with a current testing version of GNU social. GNU social, StatusNet, and Diaspora may be ants compared to Facebook today, but they have history on their side, and we can expect the emerging standards of projects like these to deliver the open and social web the online world has been waiting for.


[Licensed under CC.]


Blog  |  Forum     more >> Archive | Feed | Google's blogs | About


This site unofficially covers Google™ and more with some rights reserved. Join our forum!