Quick Thoughts On Diaspora
Important: Diaspora is still very early in its development process. Everything I mention could change at any time. I’d encourage you to try it out, but don’t expect a lot at this time.
A quick background. Last Summer, a team of college students (recent grads?) kicked off a project to build a federated social networking site similar to Facebook or MySpace. At the time, there was a lot of grumbling about Facebook’s odious anti-privacy policies, so the group was able to raise a little money to help them get started.
There is an official alpha (that means very early-stage, as in it may eat your data or leak it to the world; links and URLs may change, page layouts and functionality may change, and so on) at http://joindiaspora.com/. I received an invitation last night, so I signed up.
First impression: If you’ve used Facebook, you know that it offers a grouping feature, to help you direct your posts to the appropriate "friends" and away from inappropriate ones. This is to keep your boss from seeing photos of you puking after a night of drinking. But Facebook’s feature is difficult to use, so much that no one I know uses it, and many people aren’t even aware of it. Diaspora’s “aspects” grouping feature is right up front and easy to use. It quite naturally invites you to partition your "friends" into such groups, while making it absolutely simple to send a post to all your aspects.
Federation and control of one’s own data are issues of major importance today. I recently found some of my former home addresses (and a couple where I’ve never been… Atlanta, for example) showed up in a simple web search. Since I’ve been online (1997), I’ve never posted that information anywhere. I’ve been careful not to make said information available to anyone without a legitimate need. But when I think about it, plenty of information is available on sites like Facebook.
Now, that does not make Facebook evil. What it does mean is that you and I need to be even more careful about what information we allow sites like Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, Bebo, Brightkite, Orkut, and LinkedIn to obtain and to store. Facebook’s “real names policy” is, of course, the most dangerous thing on the Internet today, when you couple it with making your hometown, educational information, and employment information absolutely public with no way to protect it. But LinkedIn and sites like Monster.com also have dangerous amounts of information about you and exist to spread that information far and wide (with some potential benefit to you, I must say). By the way, I agree with many of Phil Windley‘s ideas about moving toward a “personal data store,” which sites and vendors would access with your express permission in order to obtain identity and other personal information, including the idea of controls on said data that prevents a vendor from disseminating it without your knowledge and consent. I intend to write more about identity management and the need for our legal system to institute a control framework that returns control of our information to ourselves.
My impression is that Diaspora is being more careful about collection and dissemination of personal information. For example, if you search for my real name online, there are at least two people who show up. Diaspora asked for (but did not require) that name. Facebook won’t sign you up without that name. (Actually, my online name "lnxwalt" is, so far, a more unique identifier than my real name or even my SSN.) Diaspora allowed me to sign up under the name I use for online activities, which is a major plus.
But I must say, if they are serious about federation, they need to prioritize work to connect with sites using the OStatus protocol (primarily Identica and other StatusNet sites right now, but that may also enable read-only connection with Google Buzz) as well as the long-proven XMPP. I’d also suggest talking with the guys at Buddycloud about ways to interoperate with them. (Not that I’m saying the Buddycloud article is right. That’s a lot of talk for a group that appears not to have a desktop-compatible interface.) They need to be explicit about plugin APIs, client APIs, and protocol suites, even if they have to say "This may change in the future," because that’s how they can get people to develop add-ons that make the product better.
Talk to the guys at Elgg about ways to enable Diaspora and Elgg sites to interoperate. I realize you’re not PHP-focused, but if you make it easy for others to help and contribute, you may be surprised at what comes up.
It is important to understand that federation may require more than just your company / ideas to make happen. Go ahead and see about working with others who are also doing federated social networking.
I would like to encourage the Diaspora devs to think about these things. Also: usernames—we already have a webfinger to specify how usernames should look in a federated social network; don’t ignore others' hard-earned knowledge. Restructure usernames to be @username@host, and use that to enable pointing messages to different users (and direct messaging, too).
All in all, I’m impressed with Diaspora. My suggestions above are made in the hope of making it even better. If you’re not yet part of a Diaspora pod and you’re interested in helping the developers find bugs and needed functionality, take a look at this list of Diaspora pods.