Diaspora doesn’t have what it takes to topple Facebook

Diaspora will fail to kill Facebook.  In fact, I predict Diaspora will flat-out fail. I hope I’m wrong, but I won’t be.

For those that haven’t heard of it, Diaspora is the opensource alternative to Facebook. It will launch Sept. 15. The two major points of differentiation between Diaspora and Facebook are 1) Diaspora gives you more intuitive and effective control of your data privacy settings and 2) Diaspora is self-hosted, so you ultimately control all your own data.

According to the blogosphere, these two points are precisely what the public is crying for and the exact recipe necessary to finally break Facebook’s nefarious deathgrip on social networking. This, alas, is the social media/tech-blog echo chamber once again confusing its own desires with what the general public wants. This same crowd reacts with shock and indignation when Scott Pilgrim fails to out-earn The Expendables even though any objective observer would have predicted brain-dead ’80s-pastiche explosions would appeal to a wider audience than video game hipster surrealism. By the same token, what the hard core social media crowd wants out of a social networking service has very little in common with what the average user wants out of a social network.

First, there simply is no competing — at least in the short term — with Facebook’s 500 million users. As written previously, Facebook has become too big to fail. Everyone is on Facebook, so everyone wants to be on Facebook. Perhaps more accurately, Facebook is AOL 2.0 — a massive walled garden that makes the internet simpler and safer for the average user. Facebook may be doomed to AOL’s same fate once the walls of that garden become too closed in but, lest we forget, AOL is still around. Diaspora will fail to kill Facebook simply because Facebook can’t die, even after it has faded to zombie-like pointlessness.

Second, I’m not convinced the average user gives a damn about privacy. Facebook’s entire history has been one long string of privacy abuses, yet their membership grows every year. Even if the public really is more privacy-sensitive than their behavior suggests, Facebook has achieved the necessary critical mass that creates a dominant social network.  Again, everyone is on Facebook, so everyone wants to be on Facebook. Diaspora will face a huge uphill climb to replace that giant, central value proposition of Facebook.

Third, the opportunity to host my own social networking server is one that appeals only to the smallest fraction of the social networking marketplace. Not only does this present a technical challenge that average user wouldn’t dream of tackling, but it also effectively negates Diaspora’s “free” pricetag when I have to pay for hosting space. Making a product that’s more technically challenging and more expensive than Facebook is not a recipe for mainstream success. Diaspora claims they’ll offer a non-hosted version later in the product roadmap, but such promises are often made and seldom kept when it comes to opensource projects.

Thus, I predict Diaspora will both fail to kill Facebook and fail overall. Despite this, I’m glad Diaspora is here. First, the project will serve as a useful gauge of the true public demand for a privacy-centric social network (though that term itself seems an oxymoron). Second, the technical hurdles that Diapsora seeks to overcome — namely mass contact and data migration from Facebook, Twitter and Flickr — will help every startup and product seeking to unlock and decentralize social networking data (Backupify included).

Diaspora is an important step in the long process of wresting control of user social data away from Facebook and its ilk. But for the time being, Facebook is here to stay.

Hope you’ve got a backup plan.

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  • Tom

    Reading this article, I can’t help but think that it’s better for this blog to stay close to its area of expertise.

  • Jeff

    It will be interesting to see if there’s a possibility of hosting your own node in the cloud. Thus you get the benefit of 6 nines, but still have control over your own data including the ability to delete and have it actually delete.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=500416330 Adam Brown

    I love that you declare that Facebook is like AOL, too big to fail. Well, AOL failed *because* it was a walled garden and people discovered the joy in playing in the rest of the world. Disporia might be the thing that brings the facebook-like features to the rest of the internet.

    Facebook will eventually fall. All great empires do. And when it does, it’ll be something like Disporia that takes the traffic. I just don’t know if now is the time.

  • http://gokode.com/mark Mark

    Sadly, I agree. Most people couldn’t care less about the things this subculture obsesses about.

  • Anonymous

    The last line made the whole article come together :-)

  • http://www.yaps4u.net shinerweb

    I’d say I have to agree with 99% of the above especially the “Facebook too big to fail”. What it will provide though is a method to supply a local alternative to Facebook upon your own domain under your own control. Though it claims to be an FOSS alternative to Facebook, IHMO they are chalk and cheese (i.e. two different things). Facebook is what it is, Diaspora will grow into something else over time…

  • Scott Smith

    An open source server made by 3 students in a couple months can’t beat an established website with 500 million users and millions of dollars spent on development every year?

    Shocking newsflash!

  • Anon

    “Thus, I predict Diaspora will both fail to kill Facebook and fail overall.”
    “But for the time being, Facebook is here to stay.”

    Well which is it? Take a side and stick to it.

  • http://afdit.co.uk AFD

    Nothing is too big to fail.

    Diaspora already has an audience. That audience will be able to use Diaspora to interact with it’s Facebook friends while they choose what they want to do about increasing privacy infringement. The statement people “everyone is on Facebook, so everyone wants to be on Facebook” is only true while you have to be on Facebook to interact with Facebook friends. Break this cycle and see how many people stay on Facebook.

    Diaspora will always offer more than Facebook can, despite it’s smaller budget and fewer staff, because it does not rely on advertiser funding. I imagine that many who would not be willing to pay for Facenook would gladly pay for Diaspora development time, and as it is open source that is free money for whoever wants to develop on it.

    A refresher of just some of the features Diaspora will have that Facebook will not:
    * End-to-end GPG
    * OpenID
    * VoIP

    And as far as I can tell that is a) just the start (gaming platform/videocalls to follow?) and b) It will do what Facebook does.

    That’s if Farmville etc go to Diaspora… and the zombies follow.

  • Anonymous

    Diaspora have help from many influential people, including encouragement by Facebook. They won’t, and neither expect to, outroot the site from their first version. They want to let people host not because hosting is fun (that’s probably the one thing that gain the most from being scaled by one competent team, and not be let to idle hands) but because they want a distributed architecture, to let people innovate as they wish, from open standards, rather then from a closed, SDK-controled platform. They expect to have enough iteration (internal and looking at other SNS) to make a service that is easier to use, and let innovators working on their own version figure out versions that make even more sense to the users. Of course a vast majority of users will use a commercial hosting that will offer the most basic options against ad serving and personalization for a fee; some users will host themselves (power-users, developers, safety-conscious). At least, that’s how it happened for all the previous generations of communication standards: e-mail, instant messaging, forums, blogs, and closed SNS. A distributed structure (IMAP, XMPP, RSS, OpenID) only merges code one practice have merged, and simplifies user experience; it doesn’t change that constant in information economic that the consent to pay is widely distributed. The team behind Diaspora is certainly idealistic, but if they expect to make money, it will be by being the most knowledgeable at the tech that they were central in developing or maybe the largest, default or most trusted provider.

    For instance I’d love to have a “university professor” module that allows me to split my account in some way between personal life, colleagues (with bibliographic tools) and students (with many privacy, grading tools). I’m sure an assistant somewhere has the ability to code something that makes more sense, but so far, Facebook Application hasn’t been enough. The last installment of the platform is more powerful, and has made service like Quora possible, where I can follow and discuss with fellow experts, without having to filter them out of my family photos. I believe Facebook will meet Diaspora at some point, and I hope the two to be interoperable in some way, allowing more richness in interactions as well as a more intuitive approach.

  • http://www.google.com/profiles/enmarabrams BlueHalide

    With the glaring exception to google. I don’t see this super-giant failing anytime soon.

  • http://twitter.com/jaygarmon Jay Garmon

    I completely agree that nothing is too big to fail. That’s why I compare Diaspora to AOL. There was a reason Time Warner and AOL came together in the largest corporate merger in history (and that it was AOL doing the buying) — everyone thought America Online was invincible.

    Those who say Facebook is unstoppable now are just a wrong as those who said AOL was unstoppable then. But agreeing that Facebook is due for Faceplant isn’t the same as agreeing that Diaspora will be the product that kills (or even wounds) Facebook.

    I’m personally excited for Diaspora and hope I’m wrong about its chances. But it has to offer more than just self-hosting, enhanced privacy and even VoIP to crush Facebook. And I don’t see it getting there despite all the breathless media hype.

  • http://twitter.com/jaygarmon Jay Garmon

    Exactly. Why Diaspora has been anointed the as the Destroyer of Facebook is largely unexplained. Yet, somehow, the social media and/or hacker echo chamber will be shocked when Diaspora becomes the next Ning.

  • Anonymous

    I feel like there is a demand out there for something to replace Facebook, however, it must be something that is very different and unexpected. It can’t just be “Facebook, but with X” such as “facebook, but with privacy.”

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  • http://twitter.com/UICInformatics Health Informatics

    I say it fails because I don’t even know how to pronounce it’s name. There. Done. NEXT! :)

  • http://twitter.com/christawatson Christa Watson

    I say it will fail because I don’t even know how to pronounce it’s name. That’s it. Over. Done. NEXT SOCIAL NETWORK IN LINE?

  • http://jasonmar.com Jason Mar

    What if everyone were to just piggyback on the Diaspora instance of a privacy-obsessed sysadmin that they know and trust? (I have no idea what % of people are 1 social-graph-node away from a sysadmin, anyone care to take a guess?)

  • http://jasonmar.com Jason Mar

    It does seem like there have been a lot of company blogs commenting on the startup world and getting links from HN lately

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  • eleusis

    You’re assuming that 1) Diaspora is a 1:1 alternative of Facebook, and 2) the only measure of success is getting more users than Facebook. Diaspora will fill a specific niche, and if it can scrape content from FB and Twitter (as it plans to), it will simply be a complement to those services. In that sense, it would be a success.

  • eleusis

    That’s media hype. If you listen to the Diaspora guys themselves, they are much more humble and grounded. A couple of recent talks that they gave at Pivotal Labs and Mozilla are linked from their Twitter feed. Try listening to them.

  • Anonymous

    Yes, it will be interesting to see how it plays out…

  • http://gibberingmadness.blogspot.com/ Gibbering Madness

    Remember AltaVista? Remember ICQ? Facebook is next.

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  • guest

    I’m not too interested in hosting my own server, but I would LOVE to move to a social network that has more privacy than Facebook. I don’t even post on Facebook any more because they insist on broadcasting every comment I make to every person I ever met. And you need days and days to go through all their privacy settings and lock everything down. And then they will change those settings and default you to a new less-private setting until you go back and do it all again.

  • sayed

    “i know that it’s an old post” but here is my comment:
    i think that the idea behind D* has nothing to do with facebook. I don’t care that “facebook is too big to fail”. All i care about that D* give me the choice to write more open source code that might help somebody out there to have one more option to express him self, sharing his life.
    “As Linux still there in many shapes and flavor, Diaspore will do it a gain.”