Diaspora coming

It’s probably not true to say that everybody hates Facebook. But there are many millions (of the hundreds of millions that use the site) that claim to hate Facebook’s cavalier approach to privacy and founder Mark Zuckerberg’s equally vague approach to the future of our privacy. There are even groups dedicated to encouraging users to leave Facebook (some on Facebook itself, ironically).

The alternative to Facebook, some are hoping, is a new, distributed social network that builds in strong privacy controls from the outset. It’s called Diaspora and its makers are a group of university students from the US. The group are now getting ready to launch a developer version later this month and go into public beta in October. But can Diaspora offer what users want or is it too late?

Diaspora is an open source social network designed to be run in a distributed manner. That means that individual users will host part of the network on their own computers and this will contribute to the overall network. In theory this means that users will then have greater control over the data that is made available on the Diaspora network.

The difference between Facebook and Diaspora is that on Diaspora data is not stored centrally on servers hosted by a single organisation. Facebook on the other hand stores every picture, comment, like and poke on their servers.

This makes a lot of people nervous because not only could it all disappear one day but they also have limited control over how that data is used. And because Facebook regularly changes the way they allow users to manage privacy and the way they control who sees their information, there is an inherent confusion and distrust. Just keeping up with Facebook’s ever-changing privacy controls is a regular chore.

This is exactly what the Diaspora makers are betting on. By hopefully removing the privacy fears they believe users will feel more comfortable sharing their pictures, comments and thoughts. Each of the computers on the network will be known as “seeds” and they will aggregate social media updates from a range of networks including, interestingly, Facebook.

The downside of this is that users will actually have to run their own version of the software, either on their personal computer or on a server they have. It’s a small obstacle to widespread adoption but a significant one. Unlike Facebook which is entirely web-based Diaspora requires users to download and install software before they use the network.

In theory that’s not too much of an ask but if you consider that the vast majority of users are not technically inclined it’s a real stumbling block.

The bigger problem is probably that, despite the general consensus (at least if media is to be believed) that Facebook’s privacy policies are a problem, the reality is that most users are not going to switch off Facebook. The Facebook-based “1,000,000 Strong to leave Facebook by July 4” has just 315 members. The “We’re Quitting Facebook” project had a more credible but still negligible 37,000 committed quitters for its May 31 switch-off. Facebook now has well over 400 million users around the world so thirty thousand or so barely even registers on their radar.

Diaspora may well be a much needed change but there is a growing sense that it’s a little too late to actually make any meaningful impact on the social networking scene.

The underlying code for Diaspora will be released on September 15. The network itself is expected to launch during October.

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Diaspora coming