I never really "trusted" Facebook or Google+. That is to say, I never expected them to respect my privacy or keep my secrets. I'm not too secretive online anyway, and what I do have to hide, I just don't post. But it is very clear that there is a great deal of corruption inherent in a business model which is based on concentrating the personal data from millions of users and selling that data to advertisers. At the very least, there must be a free alternative. But for that alternative to be viable, we need to use it. Identica has been around for some time now (and I use it -- I'm "digitante"), and Diaspora is (after a long hard start) finally getting some wind under its wings. I've used it, and it's Good Enough. In fact, you'll find it's pretty similar to what Facebook or Google+ offers, although there are still some rough spots.
We're Free Software users. We're Free Software advocates. Theoretically at least, we care about freedom. And it's no good whining to Google's management about the ethical bankruptcy of demanding full identification or rejecting pseudonymous users. Nor is there much point in writing cutting editorials about Facebook's (lack of) privacy ethics. Neither company is likely to be responsive to these complaints.
Diaspora gives us a hope for a genuinely free social media world in which no one agency can control or shut down the rights of free speech and free assembly online (Credit: Horia Varlan / CC By 2.0)
Because, guess what, you're not their customer. You're their product.
It cost millions of dollars to set up a large centralized services like Google+ or Facebook, and they are going to make that money back by selling to their actual customers. Those would be the people who want to send you targeted advertisements based on the volumes of information that can be collected from your posts and comments, the things you "like" (or "+1") and the groups you join. To say nothing of the demographic fields you've filled out. And it's not just corporations trying to sell you porn or popcorn -- some of their customers are government agencies who want to keep tabs on citizens to make sure they don't get too far out of line. They want to know what you think and where you live so that if you think the wrong things, they can do something about it.
Paranoid? Maybe. But "just because you're paranoid doesn't mean someone isn't out to get you." And do you really need a review on present-day "identity politics"?
There's a great deal of power in the free speech that is now possible through social networks. We got to see that this Spring in the Middle East, with a half-dozen oppressive regimes being challenged by large popular movements, initially organized through social media channels -- and we've seen at least three of those revolutions succeed (albeit with varying degrees of success afterwards). Organizations like WikiLeaks and Anonymous have used electronic means to harry and challenge corporate and governmental hegemonies -- whether you (like Richard Stallman) consider their tactics a matter of ethical popular demonstration or (like most of the US government) consider them tantamount to terrorism. Either way, we have to face it -- our world has been cyberpunked. The analog era is over.
Controlling the Machines
This kind of power is too dangerous to be left in the hands of governments or corporations, it must be vested in the people. And if it is centralized, then it will be co-opted and ultimately corrupted by corporate interests. Thus, the only real, long-term solution is going to be a decentralized one -- where there is no single point of control, democracy has the advantage.
It's also important that the software behind the platform is free-licensed open-source software, so that it can be improved upon by the community, checked by the community, and freely deployed by the community.
So far, though, convenience has led the way, with Facebook and Google+ trading on their ease of use and attracting large userbases which in turn increases their value to others. They've done their marketing and made their money from it, and in a way this is useful. But it would be very dangerous to leave control in their hands.
Building a free social networking infrastructure is a hard task and there have been several incomplete or abortive attempts. Until recently, it looked like the latest -- Diaspora -- might become another one. Their project marketing has been terrible. But, despite the "alpha" label, Diaspora has now reached a level of basic functionality, so that it could be used for many purposes we now rely on other services for. Of course, there are a lot of missing features -- there's no "link preview" so you have to follow links if you want to see what they're about, and there doesn't seem to be any support for video, although animated GIF files work (I'm not really sure why animated GIFs have made such a comeback, but they have, here and on Google+).
Diaspora, despite being "alpha" software, is already quite usable for some purposes. You can post text and pictures. Links are converted in posts, though there is no link preview feature yet. The interface looks a lot like Google+, though it may be more accurate to say that "Google+ looks a lot like Diaspora" according to at least one source.
You'll find Diaspora's user interface pretty familiar -- more like Google+ than like Facebook, and quite easy and intuitive to use
The exciting differences are less visible -- first, that it is open source, and thus no one organization has total control of its development (though there is a start-up company behind Diaspora); and second, that it is "a federated service" rather than "a centralized site".
That's a subtle, but very important difference -- there is no single Diaspora site, there are a collection of Diaspora "pods". I've joined one -- diasp.org -- which seems to be fine, but you can see others. In general, users don't need to be aware of the pods -- because you can share transparently with users on other pods. But this means there is no central authority determining who gets accounts or what they can have in their profile. And your private data isn't shared across the whole network of pods.
And there's no Big Bad Corporation to worry about. Instead, there's lots of pods run by small businesses or hobbyists for their own reasons -- sort of like the World Wide Web itself. That alone reduces the motivation for the "Big Brother" tactics of Facebook or Google+. You can run your own pod by installing the Diaspora software, just as you can host your own website or wiki.
Of course, Diaspora is an "alpha" which means it's still missing a lot of features (no link preview, no videos, etc), and it's apparently been pretty slow going. But with an open-source project, the answer to that problem is to pile on more people and hope some of them are developers who take an interest in improving the service.
With all of the concerns over who controls the "Social Web" (We've addressed some of these problems before in Free Software Magazine -- regarding the Google+ name policy and other privacy issues, Facebook's questionable ethics, and the overall danger of controlled networks. I think it is extremely important for a more decentralized, more democratic, more open, and more free solution to succeed in the interest of personal freedom on the internet. And it looks to me like Diaspora is an essential part of that solution, so I'm endorsing it now, even though it's not entirely "ready".
Get In At the Beginning and Make a Difference
There is some confusion about signing up for Diaspora right now. The pod used by the development team at joindiaspora.org is currently only available by invitation, and they've apparently been really terrible about sending out the invites. Ignore this! There are several pods already open for automatic sign-up. Try diasp.org, which is the one I'm using. This won't have much effect on whom you can talk to -- the nature of Diaspora is that sharing happens across pods as well as within them.
Right now, Diaspora is a pretty small community, and so far, the most popular topic is Diaspora itelf. So if it were merely a matter of personal convenience, I probably wouldn't have tried it. But it isn't. Diaspora is "more free" in two important ways:
It decentralized the control of the network, so that instead of a single service from a single provider, it is a web of services which can be from an arbitrary number of providers -- just like the world wide web.
It is free-licensed open-source software (GNU Affero General Public License 3.0), so like other fundamental web infrastructure, it is public property that can be improved by anyone who needs to improve it.
For those who care about Intellectual Freedom (and if you're reading Free Software Magazine, I'm assuming you probably are), making this happen for a such a critical piece of infrastructure should be a compelling goal. And like most free software, it gets better the more it is used -- this way there is more testing, more understanding of how development should proceed, and a larger pool of people from whom potential developers might come. Also, social media sites are all about the network effect the more people using it, the more people want to use it. So even if you aren't going to be able to contribute all that much to improving it, just by being there, you'll attract more interest to it.
It's unlikely that it will acquire all of the major functionality of Google+ or Facebook unless a lot more people start contributing to the project, and it's unlikely that a lot of people will contributed unless a lot of people are using it. However, at this point, the team is very open to feedback, so this is the right time to try it out and see if there are things that need fixing and report them to the Diaspora team.
Of course, I'm not going to give up my Facebook or Google+ accounts just yet -- there are a lot of people who don't care so much about Intellectual Freedom, to whom I still want to connect, and they'll probably not be migrating to Diaspora until it's a lot more complete and established than it is now. Conveniently, Diaspora makes it easy to share posts simultaneously on Diaspora, Facebook, and Twitter (though of course, you need to beware of the post length -- fortunately the web interface provides a counter to keep track of the shortest limit when you have Facebook or Twitter sharing enabled).
But we are the logical early-adopters for this technology, and I think it's time we started adopting it. If we want a free future for the social web, we're going to have to support it.
Terry Hancock is co-owner and technical officer of Anansi Spaceworks. Currently he is working on a free-culture animated series project about space development, called Lunatics as well helping out with the Morevna Project.