Liz Gannes

Recent Posts by Liz Gannes

Diaspora Prepares to Launch Open Source Social Network

Diaspora is most famous — that is, in the geeky contingents where it is known — for the promise it holds as a distributed, open source social network that allows users to control their own data. But 18 months after it began as a project on Kickstarter that attracted donors like Mark Zuckerberg, it has also won a reputation for more promise than delivery.

After Diaspora emailed its users to ask them to donate this week, having published an expense report that showed its $200,000 in Kickstarter money had all been spent, some assumed the end was near.

That wasn’t the impression I got when the Diaspora team recently invited me to lunch at their favorite Indian restaurant in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood. They might be in over their heads, but they are most definitely not dead yet. (Though I feel like I might die if I ate that rich food every day.)

The Diaspora team is young, smart and, most of all, tiny, considering the scope of what they’re trying to do. They’re busy preparing for a mid-November launch, timed for a year after Diaspora went into alpha testing.

According to their view of the world, Diaspora has already had success because its ideas are turning up in other social networks, given that Google+ Circles resemble Diaspora Aspects, and Facebook has recently stepped up its sharing controls.

Diaspora counts more than 100,000 users on its own Diaspora pod (twice as many as a month ago), with hundreds of other installations around the world, including someone in Seattle who has 20,000 users on his own server. (If you want to sign up for Diaspora today, you can either request an invite on joindiaspora.com, install your own pod or join an existing independent pod.)

Team Diaspora now consists of three of its four co-founders (Raphael Sofaer still contributes but has returned to college at NYU) plus a few volunteers who help with strategy, tech and communications.

The crew at lunch were co-founders Ilya Zhitomirskiy (he does infrastructure and encryption), Daniel Grippi (he does design) and Maxwell Salzberg (jack of all trades); plus Yosem Companys (outreach) and Sarah Mei (an engineer at Pivotal Labs, which gives Diaspora free office space, who will be CTO once Diaspora has enough funding to pay her).

The Diaspora vision is expansive, but the way it expresses itself is in a social network that looks and feels like many others — with an extra dose of animated GIFs.

Silly GIFs have emerged as a favorite part of the Diaspora culture (as on other corners of the Internet), but they do serve a purpose. Though Team Diaspora talked about how much they love online sharing and want to encourage more of it by assuring people they control their own data, the biggest attraction of their service may ironically be heightened fear about online privacy. That’s part of why nurturing a fun community — even if it’s around silly GIFs — is so important.

In the spirit of the occasion, I made a GIF of Team Diaspora using the iPhone app Loopcam. I was going to post it here, but honestly, it will make you seasick, so watch it in this Diaspora post and check out some stills above.

Salzberg, who declined to go on the record about funding plans, maintained that the nonprofit Diaspora would figure out how to make money while respecting its users’ interests. He would say that he looks to Firefox as the prime example of an end-user open source project, and that Diaspora may try to make money by charging users to host pods.

Diaspora has support from a broader community of open source contributors, but the core team sets the tone for both the product and the larger project. They are goofy, idealistic and nerdy — just like the folks who work at Google or Facebook — but they maintain an outsider’s bent, chatting about the things they read on tech blogs rather than the Silicon Valley types they’ve actually met in person.

Grippi — who personally created Diaspora’s first app, a photo bookmarking tool called Cubbi.es, and had just redesigned the Diaspora mobile site himself — kept repeating at lunch that he’d heard Google had seven people assigned to designing the black bar at the top of Google+. He said he could only imagine what seven people working on Diaspora could do.


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Just as the atom bomb was the weapon that was supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again. It’s especially hopeless for those whose work is easily digitized and accessed free of charge.

— Author Tim Kreider on not getting paid for one’s work