Discussing Diaspora’s Future
I have seen lots of discussion about the future of !Diaspora lately. Here is my first attempt to really weigh in. We need to distinguish between several things that are all called Diaspora. First of all, there is Diaspora the project (DProj), the Diaspora core development team (DCore), Diaspora the corporation (DStar), and DStar’s Diaspora pod, JoinDiaspora.com (JD). There are also several independently-operated pods, such as Diasp.org (DiaspO) and Diasp.eu (DiaspE).
First of all, DProj, can really benefit from more contributors. Sadly, I cannot help. I messed around with Ruby for a while, realized that its soup of special characters with special meanings was not going to ever match my brain (like Perl, which has the same problem), and put it down quickly.
DProj is almost synonymous with DCore and DStar, as is usual in a cathedral-type of project. However, DStar is also distracted with the financial and administrative burden of operating JD. This, I think, is the chief problem that Diaspora (overall) faces. Even with a cathedral model, they could be very successful. But they’ll have to be very careful.
DStar must, absolutely must start to create a business model. They need to wake up and realize that centralizing around JD, a site that charges its users nothing and accepts no advertising, is suicidal. Likewise, owners of other Diaspora pods, including both DiaspO and DiaspE, should be thinking about their own business models.
Once you realize that hosting a zero-price site for yourself and a few friends and family is considerably different from hosting a zero-price site for tens or even hundreds of thousands of people you do not know, you will realize that all large Diaspora pods will need some kind of business model. Hosting costs money. Bandwidth costs money. Having someone to administer the site, to respond to issues and outages all day, every day costs money. By refusing to face this issue up front, JD may have seriously damaged the future of both DStar and DProj.
Diaspora, particularly the JD pod, has attracted a large number of people who cannot contribute code, cannot or will not contribute funds, and will not tolerate advertising on the site. Unless the JD pod finds a billionaire sponsor or forces the freeloaders to leave or change, that pod will continue to be a severe drain upon DStar, and to consume resources that DProj and DCore need.
I understand the founders wanted Diaspora to be more of a non-profit foundation, and I understand this. Putting DProj development in a NPO would be the best way to go, but pod-hosting (JD) is killing the project.
People are complaining about the instability of the JD pod, which seems to be down several times each day. As a user of that pod, but a non-participant in DProj itself, my estimation is that the influx of JD users is straining the already-tight finances and server administration resources of DStar.
What should be done about all of this? I am glad you asked.
Number one, DStar must put DProj into a non-profit organization funded primarily by DStar. That will free DProj to seek grants and sponsors. DCore needs to open up DProj a little, so that people who can grok Ruby are more willing to contribute code.
Number two, DStar must emphasize federation. People need to be encouraged to start new pods and to choose to join other pods instead of JD. In fact, I would encourage DProj and DCore to get in touch with the people trying to patch XMPP into the Diaspora codebase. Get in touch with Friendica’s Mike. Get in touch with the StatusNet, OStatus, and RStatus people. Work to make it possible for Diaspora pods to interfederate with OStatus-using federations, such as StatusNet and RStatus; make it possible to interfederate with Friendica using its Zot protocol; and to interfederate with XMPP-using federated social networks, such as Jappix. Many have argued that Diaspora lost its chance to ever become popular. I do not believe that displacing one or more of the big commercial socnets is or ever was on DStar’s agenda, but to the degree that Diaspora or any other federated socnet succeeds in attracting active and sustainable communities, they all benefit, and all the more if they can interfederate. Diaspora, the Zot-using networks (currently just Friendica), the OStatus-using networks (including Identica and other StatusNet instances, and RStatus, at least), and the XMPP-using networks together can form a network with no vulnerable central hub, no corporation or organization in control, and no way for patent and copyright trolls to buy government-sponsored tollbooths.
Number four, DStar must take action to place JD on a sound financial footing. I see two ways to do this: (1) advertising, and (2) subscriptions. Most likely, both will be needed.
Analytics: Nearly every site uses some sort of analytics, if only to help with allocation of server resources and deploying anti-spam and anti-cracking defenses. I imagine that some idea of what features are used and in which sequence they get used is going to strongly influence which features get the most developer attention, also. JD should implement a solution like Piwik, until effective analytics can be integrated into the Diaspora software as a plugin. Without analytics, JD will have no way to know how to adjust the appearance and operation site to enable it to become profitable.
Advertising: Although Google’s adsense is said to be the more profitable ad network, there is absolutely no way that JD can use it. JD is going to have to build its own ad network (using OpenX or a similar application) or contract another ad network to service the site. However this is done, ads shown on JD need to respect its users’ privacy and the integrity of the Diaspora experience. This means no expanders, none of those popups when you roll over text, no “please view this ad while the page loads”, and positively no “you were discussing cats so we’ll show an ad for XYZ cat food”.
Subscriptions: Subscriptions are an excellent way to pay for some of the costs of operation. Subscription-only would chase away those who cannot afford it, or those who object to paid-only sites. Subscriptions as a “see fewer ads, subscribe” would be the best option.
I would like to encourage DStar to get in touch with Automattic, which is thriving with a similar business and funding model to the one which the various Diaspora entities will need to adopt in order to keep themselves going.
Number five, the various entities mentioned above that are individually and collectively known as ‘Diaspora’ need to be transparent. We know that the developers need to eat, drink, commute, sleep, and do all the other things that any other human needs to do. We know that DStar and any other legal entities need to have a space they operate out of. We know that operating high-traffic servers is expensive. We also know that no one involved in Diaspora is getting rich or trying to put something over on us.
So I would hope that DStar and all other legal entities, along with JD and other major pods, will make it a point to be transparent about what their needs are and what resources are available. Perhaps in doing so, people like me, who really want to see them succeed in producing a viable alternative to centralized networks, will find ways to help them do so.
Please be aware that this is not meant in any way to trash-talk anyone involved in Diaspora. It is meant to spur others to think about the financial needs of developing code full-time and of running large, resource-intensive pods, and to persuade them to be supportive of the people behind Diaspora as JD and other large pods move to find the revenues they need to continue operating.
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