Will the seeds of Diaspora knock Facebook of its perch as the de facto standard in social networking?
This is an interesting question, and one that no doubt many will be asking as we approach the initial release of Diaspora, which at the time of writing was due on the 15th Sept. To begin to understand if this will be a success first I considered the difference between the two types of social network and asked myself:
Why is a distributed social network (DSN) a good idea?
It’s what the web is all about!
The web, by its nature, is a distributed architecture and it makes sense that any social network that evolves across the web should itself be distributed in nature. It’s entirely possible that social sub-networks will emerge and allow themselves to connect to others, meaning although we belong to a single sub-network (of 1 or more) we can communicate with anyone from any other sub-network. Through the use of pre-packaged hosted solutions (see below why these are important) smaller sub-communities may grow. As far as I’m aware each user in Diaspora can exist as their own social network or seed and they can communicate with any other seed (providing it is agreed that those seeds can share data between them). Perhaps many seeds will be hosted together in a “field” (ok I admit my choice of word) and many fields will emerge as the landscape grows across the web (ok leaving this tortured analogy in favour of the next points).
It will scale infinitely
This type of architecture does not have a single provider; therefore there is no single point of failure, no single point of data, no single point for DOS attacks and no single point for corruption (in every sense of the word).
The creators own their own data
Users can choose to own their own data or choose a provider they trust to do so.
As suggested in the previous point, there is no single area (or indeed owner) of all the data. This is a significant difference to say Facebook where the centralised nature of the network means that your data has increased venerability in terms of how it might be used. There is also the question as to whether you actually own the data in the first place. In short, data about you may not be YOUR data.
Below are diagrams (albeit vastly simplified) showing the difference between centralised and distributed social networks:
So, will it emerge as the de facto standard over all other social networks (i.e. Facebook or Myspace)?
The cop-out is of course only time will tell, but IMHO this type of infrastructure must certainly be deserving of the future of social networking. Whether Diaspora becomes the framework of choice to deliver a true DSN is yet to be decided. To big it up or indeed knock it down before it’s even released would be churlish. However to ensure the guys who wrote the “initial” version of Diaspora are successful, they will need to address at “least” these following points.
- It must be embraced by the open source community
Notice my use of the word “Initial” as it’s imperative that the open source community targets this framework in 2 main areas:
- The continued development of the core code and the inevitably subsequent releases.
- A good API and set of plugins to follow. You only have to look at other examples within the open source community (such as WordPress) to know how important this is.
- Ease of installation.
To ensure a good take up, this must be as simplified as is technically possible with architecture of this type. Many semi-technical types (and perhaps many who are not!) will attempt to install their own seed so ease of use is a must in this area. Failure to set this up will cause many to disband the idea in favour of their existing pre-installed solutions such as Facebook.
- Pre-packaged hosting of seeds
Promotion of pre-packaged Diaspora seeds through hosting providers will undoubtedly provide the path of least resistance for many non-technical users (or even technical users who don’t have the resources to host their own seed). In fact many technical users may choose this option, as they’re only too aware of the consequence of managing it themselves.
- Sensible sub-groups
Diaspora MUST have the ability to allow users to share data in a much more structure way. I.e. they can create multiple personas and relax into that environment sharing information they feel is relevant and appropriate to the audience. The complex nature of human interaction means (whether we like it or not) we often adopt different personas based on the people or group of people we’re interacting with. To date, there is NOT a social network that takes this fundamental principle into account. I may wish to speak my mind (or not) based on whether I’m talking to long term friends, family or work colleagues and I don’t necessarily want people from each group hearing comments meant for other groups. It’s important to note this isn’t about being insincere or “two faced” it’s the just the complex way we interact with different groups of people. If you’re fortunate to have a specific persona that appeals to a large group then investing time sending updates to that community makes sense. If you make money from it, it makes even more sense. This is why twitter is so useful to famous people wishing to reach their followers. However, many of us don’t have that and using twitter presents you with a sense of un-ease as you quickly run through your head the consequences of the entire planet seeing what you’re about to post!
To re-iterate this point; Following a great meal out with some male friends the other night, as you can imagine the banter started to flow and the level of humour quickly rose (or indeed fell depending on your point of view). The subject of twitter came up and as we discussed who did and didn’t use it, we drew the conclusion that we’d love to be able to tweet each other on the subjects of the night but only between us. I didn’t necessarily want my mother reading what we were discussing and I doubt they wanted their mother or in fact mine reading what they were saying! So without having to create multiple social network accounts it would be great to make that decision between your own social sub-networks.
- Reaching Tipping Point
Users will not necessarily understand the implications or care that they or a local provider owns their data instead of a centralised company. Despite the fact that the media has recently hyped cases of concerns over Facebook’s use of our private data, many people still continue to use Facebook assuming that there are no-implications to what they’re doing on it. In this case they’ll compare Diaspora to Facebook on other UI merits and could easily fall back to the devil they know and to be fair in most cases love. Most people will take the path of least resistance and will only create accounts on Diaspora if others encourage them to do so. After all, did you join Facebook because you thought it would be a good idea or because all your friends where going on about it? So ensuring it reaches that tipping point will be the only way Diaspora will ultimately succeed. I would cite the interesting book by Malcolm Gladwell to re-iterate this point. http://amzn.to/a95jIj
Users must be able to quickly and easily move their seeds (and data) to new hosting platforms. If, as I suspect, many users choose pre-packaged hosting packages to park their seed, they must not be tied in. It’s imperative that both the hosting provider and the Diaspora framework make it as easy as possible to transfer a seed and its data to a new hosting platform. This will encourage competitive hosting plans and improve the overall user experience. Also, perhaps more importantly, in keeping with the fact that the user owns the data, this data should be made freely available to them (and of course ONLY THEM) in a format that aids such a transfer.
- Consistent UI
I was listening to a Sitepoint podcast the other day http://bit.ly/f3JeT (which if you don’t listen to and you are interested in the web development technologies then you should – these guy’s are very informative and often entertaining) and I think they made the point that MySpace was a problem for them in terms of the UI and the fact that it was so customisable actually made it a turn off. I agree, as often when you went to each person’s space the UI would change (momentarily beyond recognition). What this means to Diaspora is being able to tailor the UI to your own personal choice is important, but when I view another seed I want to see their data (or at the least the data they want me to see) in my own chosen L&F.
I’m sure that there are many other reasons people can cite as to the eventual success or down fall of this new social network (and feel free to add your own comments), but of all 7 points I feel point 5 will be the ultimate decider and the others will merely aid 5 becoming
(or not becoming) true. Facebook has already reached the “tipping point” and for that reason alone will not be toppled easily. I believe fundamentally in the architecture behind Diaspora (or at least the premise of that architecture) but that alone will not ensure its success.
As for me – I’ll install it, try it out and if I like it maybe even set up my own field of seeds…..