Web Idealism

How Four Upstarts Built and Crashed the Anti-Facebook

Fueled by idealism and Kickstarter, four young men tried to challenge Facebook’s hegemony with a social network that valued privacy. Then things went south.

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In November 2011, Ilya Zhitomirskiy, a 22-year-old founding member of the social network Diaspora, committed suicide in his San Francisco bedroom. It was just three days before the scheduled release of his company’s beta product—a highly anticipated Facebook alternative that would allow users to control their own data. Zhitomirskiy had a history of depression, but his decision was apparently spurred by a number of factors: A year and a half after he and three NYU friends moved West with $200,000 raised on Kickstarter and loads of publicity, they were fighting, their CEO just quit, and the money was dwindling.

In Jim Dwyer’s More Awesome Than Money, Ilya’s suicide goes beyond the merely tragic to the symbolic. On the surface, Dwyer’s book is an up-close look at a Silicon Valley tech start-up, packed with stories of late night brainstorming sessions, venture capital pitches, wild memed parties, and endless coding. But this is no capitalist success story. The Diaspora Four, as the founders are referred to, are idealists; they were inspired to launch their company after attending a speech about freedom and social justice on the Internet.

As the story of their business unfolds, global events crowd their way into the narrative. The book covers the years 2010-2013, when the Arab Spring, Occupy movements, and Edward Snowden’s revelations are exploding across the world stage. These events give the potentially abstract issues that the book tackles—government and corporate spying, Internet freedom—an important tangibility. The Internet, ever becoming a greater part of the human experience, is at a crossroads, Dwyer argues in his book. One road leads to freedom, sharing, and equality; the other to endless spying, a hierarchical structure, and repression. The Diaspora Four are trying to navigate their way through all this, and Ilya’s death can be read as a warning about the consequences of choosing the wrong path.

The speech that inspired Diaspora was delivered by Eben Moglen, a Columbia law professor and founder of the Software Freedom Law Center. Moglen asserts that the current business model of the Internet, in which personal data is traded for “free” services, is antithetical to its original intent and “hostile to human freedom.” The thorny issues involved in this trade-off have been critiqued powerfully in recent books by Glenn Greenwald, in No Place to Hide, and Julia Angwin, in Dragnet Nation. But Moglen, an Internet scholar, has developed something closer to a philosophy. That philosophy was adopted by the Diaspora Four.

The Internet, the philosophy goes, was not meant to be a hierarchy in which large companies own the servers that all the data runs through—and therefore have all the power. It was intended, instead, to be based on “peerage,” where all players are equal. In short, it was intended to be a place to create a more egalitarian society. Three companies are primarily responsible for corrupting this ideal: Microsoft, Google, and Facebook: Microsoft, because it created the predominant server-client architecture; Google and Facebook because they entrenched the business model of targeted advertising dependent upon data tracking.

Moglen is particularly critical of Facebook. Why? Because people are social creatures who need to network, and the price to do so should not be privacy. While Google can argue that actual employees do not read your correspondence (their robots do), Facebook can make no such claim. Zuckerberg himself has bragged that he is able to predict which site members will hook up with whom based on their site activity. “Mr. Zuckerberg should be bankrupt,” Moglen exhorts.

The solution? Software should be “open source”—meaning anyone can view it and contribute—and individual servers, or “pods,” must be developed so everyone can control their own data. Dwyer extends Moglen’s argument here, declaring that this openness is key, because software is “a root activity of humankind in the twenty first century,” and “a basic moral and economic force” that “would undergird global societies.”

It’s a compelling vision, and Dwyer’s account of these kids struggling to realize it is a thrilling read, astoundingly detailed and researched, alternately suspenseful and heartbreaking. (Dwyer was present for many of the events he describes, providing a you-are-in-the-room feel.) I would have liked to see Dwyer directly address obvious questions about Moglen’s philosophy, however. Are there Intellectual Property restrictions on this totally free Internet? How about security exceptions to spying? Absent data tracking, how will Internet companies profit? Indeed, the question of profit is where Moglen’s philosophy gets the murkiest. Doesn’t the very idea of profit, after all, conflict with the ideal of a totally free, collaborative Internet?

The answer is left unclear, but Diaspora is certainly intended to be profitable. These kids, as Ilya admits, are part of the 1 percent, and they expect comfortable lives as adults. Some of their stated goals, in fact—Max wants to be a CEO, Dan wants to be his own boss—aren’t as idealistic as Ilya’s, who invariably speaks of using technology to improve the world. By establishing Ilya as his book’s moral center, Dwyer endorses his views, and ultimately the book is less a celebration of capitalism than an attack on it—or the brand that exalts profit above all, anyway.

A follower of the Occupy movement, Ilya “spoke the language of revolutionary battles,” and his work on Diaspora was “one piece of this broader movement to create more free collaboration and communication.” The book’s title itself, a paraphrasing of Ilya, is an assertion that profit is not the ultimate good. Dwyer begins his book with the full quote: “There’s something deeper than making money off stuff. Creating stuff for the universe is awesome.”