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.