09.02.11

Little Hope for Facebook Rival

Diaspora, the new alternative to the social networking behemoth, has great ideas—no ads, user data ownership—but Google+ already grabbed the tech-savvy geeks, and most other people will stay on Facebook, says Dan Lyons.

What if you gave a party, rented a great venue, hired a great band, spent months getting everything ready, and you let anyone attend, at no cost—and still, when you threw open the doors, nobody showed up?

That’s what I’m afraid is going to happen with a cool new social networking service called Diaspora that’s been created as an alternative to Facebook, the world’s biggest and most powerful social network, with 750 million members and billions of dollars in annual revenue.

The sad fact is, Diaspora could be better than Facebook in a bunch of ways—its user interface is cleaner and better looking, for example—but in the end that might not matter. Most people will still go to Facebook simply because that’s where all their friends are.

It’s a bit like the situation Microsoft enjoyed for the past two decades. At some point, Microsoft got so big that it didn’t really have to make the best products anymore. Since most of the world was on Microsoft Windows and Office, you really didn’t have a choice but to go along and use them too.

Nevertheless, there are always people who will try to topple the market leader. Diaspora was formed last year as an act of rebellion against Facebook, which has alienated some users with its ever-growing encroachment on user privacy and its draconian policy that makes it difficult for members to transfer data they’ve created on Facebook (for example, their list of contacts) to another site.

Unlike Facebook, Diaspora lets users set up personal servers, or “seeds,” where they can control their own information. The company promises it will never run advertising and will let you take any of your data with you and use it wherever you want.

Diaspora was launched last April 2010 by four college kids at New York University who raised the initial funding, more than $200,000, by soliciting online donations. The project is open-source, meaning outsiders contribute some of the code.

In June 2010 they moved to San Francisco. Last November they put the product into “alpha” testing and invited people to join. A few weeks ago, Diaspora started allowing members to invite others to join the service.

So far 100,000 people have joined, and there’s a waiting list of 450,000 others, says Yosem Companys, a Stanford graduate student and Diaspora employee who says his title is “consigliere.”

The founders of Diaspora are in their early 20s, and they seem like such nice kids that you can’t help but cheer for them, even if their mission does seem kind of doomed.

It would be bad enough if they only had to battle against Facebook. But in recent months Google has leapt into the social networking space with a social networking site called Google+ that is attracting exactly the kind of tech-savvy, Facebook-loathing geeks that Diaspora was aiming at.

Worse, the look and feel of Google+ bears so much resemblance to Diaspora that you have to think there’s more going on here than just great minds thinking alike. For example, on Diaspora you clump people into “Aspects” like Friends, Family, and Acquaintances. On Google+ you clump people into “Circles,” like Friends, Family, and Acquaintances.

Companys recently pointed out in a post that Diaspora has been online since last November, “so causality suggests Google+ looks like us, not the other way around.” But Companys says that because Diaspora is open-source, it’s perfectly fine if Google borrowed some ideas from the project. “It’s flattering to consider that Google may have borrowed ideas for their code from four kids at NYU,” he says.

In the end it won’t matter who copied whom. Google+ already has drawn more than 10 million users, making it one of the fastest-growing websites ever. (Some outsiders have estimated there are more than 20 million users.)

Robert Scoble, a popular blogger and social media gadfly, has been all over Google+, posting so frequently that it seems Google should consider changing the name of the product to “Scoble+, brought to you by Google.”

I asked Scoble whether he was using Diaspora, whether the site matters, and whether it stands a chance against Facebook and Google+. He responded with uncharacteristic brevity: “Nope, nope and nope.”

That’s worrisome, because Scoble is a narcissistic attention-seeker who gloms onto every hot new site and tries to make it his own. When Quora launched, Scoble quickly became the most avid user and was such a nuisance that they practically had to kick him off.

While the lack of Scoble represents, for me anyway, one of the positive things about Diaspora, it does indicate that the site may not be getting the right kind of buzz.

Companys insists that Diaspora isn’t trying to compete with Facebook or Google+, because those companies are trying to build walled communities—that’s why you can’t send messages between Facebook and Google+, for example—while Diaspora is trying to “reinvent the social Web” by creating a service that can connect with everything else around it.

You might use Instagram for photos, Tumblr for blogging, and SoundCloud for music—“but they will all be interconnected via Diaspora,” Companys says.

“Diaspora will enable you to own your personal data and access any network you want so you can have richer social experiences online. Rather than having to rely on one network for all your social needs, you’ll be able to use the service that works best for the various facets of your social life,” Companys says.

You might use Instagram for photos, Tumblr for blogging, and SoundCloud for music—“but they will all be interconnected via Diaspora,” he says.

Another smart Diaspora thing is targeting younger users, people aged 18 to 34. Those people are growing up with an entirely different idea of how the Web should work.

These guys have a great idea, and I hope it works out. Fingers crossed.