Open social networking: Diaspora tested

Last week Wednesday the Diaspora team released the source code for their social networking system to the world.

According to the website, Diaspora aims to be, “The privacy aware, personally controlled, do-it-all, open source social network.”

Some are calling it the Facebook killer. Many even consider the publication of the source the official launch of the network when in truth it’s just the first developer release. Development releases are also known as pre-alpha releases.

Regardless, the code is available for all and sundry to download and experiment with, albeit with an important caveat.

“Feel free to try to get it running on your machines and use it, but we give no guarantees. We know there are security holes and bugs, and your data is not yet fully exportable. If you do find something, be sure to log it in our bugtracker, and we would love screenshots and browser info,” the blog post announcing the first source code release said.

The fact that Diaspora is distributed and can be installed by anyone also seemed to cause confusion.

So how does it work?

It’s accurate that if the installation of Diaspora where your data is hosted (also called a “node” or “seed”) goes offline, your profile becomes unavailable. The intention isn’t for everyone to run Diaspora on their PCs, however.

As things stand currently, seeds are hosted by folks with some tech savvy and a Ruby-capable webserver.

What this system offers to those unable to host their own seed is the freedom to choose whom to entrust their data with. The Diaspora team also promised that you’ll eventually be able to export and move your data between seeds.

For example, Barry Reid from ‘Let’s Talk Geek’ has hosted a local seed at diasp.co.za and I’ve hosted one at facetwitbuzzr.com on a server in London. You may decide that you prefer a server in South Africa to one hosted overseas, or that you prefer a tongue-in-cheek domain name.

You can visit either of these seeds from your browser and register an account with which to test the service. Just understand that despite the ultimate goals of Diaspora to be a highly privacy-centric and secure social networking platform, in its current state none of this can be guaranteed.

In fact, a number of security problems have already been identified. This isn’t too unusual for software seeing its first developer release, but it’s a necessary warning to discourage people from treating the public seeds out there like production-ready social networking sites.

Does it work?

For pre-alpha software Diaspora is surprisingly functional and feature-rich.

At the moment Diaspora allows adding and organising friends into what it calls “aspects,” posting and receiving messages and uploading photos.

“Aspects” are essentially categories for friends which allow you to send messages to only certain categories. The interface and functionality for this needs work, but even early on Diaspora is showing what kind of control it wishes to offer you over your information flow.

Diaspora is also relatively easy to get running in a basic configuration, though the official installation documentation currently only contains instructions for the Ubuntu and Fedora Linux-based operating systems, as well as Mac OS X.

The hardest part of the setup is actually installing Ruby and MongoDB. In simple terms, Ruby is the language most of Diaspora is written in and MongoDB is the database system used.

Once Diaspora is running you can create a user account. Your Diaspora username looks like an email address, such as [email protected] (which doesn’t exist, incidentally). Friends are added by specifying their Diaspora usernames. There doesn’t seem to be a way to search for friends on different seeds right now.

The biggest issue right now is probably Diaspora’s inadequate performance. When using the recommended default mode some test servers can barely handle the load of two simultaneous users.

This could be due to the amount of resources it uses. On the facetwitbuzzr.com in particular it’s not processor load that seems to be the problem. The server has 512MB RAM available to it, of which 85% – 90% is used by the time Diaspora is running.

Some have also criticised the choice of Ruby to develop the application in, as well as the choice of MongoDB for the database engine.

While some web hosts now offer Ruby support, PHP remains by far the most widely supported language on entry-level webhosting. In addition, MongoDB isn’t supported by many hosts at all.

The future

It’s still early days for Diaspora, though, and it remains to be seen how well it will be received by the Internet at large considering the choice of technologies and distributed nature of the network.

According to the post on their official blog as well as the Diaspora roadmap, the team is focussing on Facebook integration, internationalization and data portability for the Alpha release in October.

The Diaspora team says that data portability will allow users to log into a new seed and move their entire account over to it. Your contacts will then be notified automatically of the change.

Facebook integration is intended to allow publishing to Facebook as well as finding existing friends in Diaspora, according to the team.

These features could make the new social network very attractive to users who wish to migrate from Facebook and are concerned about the ownership of their data.

Diaspora tested << Do you think it will be a challenge to Facebook?

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Open social networking: Diaspora tested