Stay connected with diaspora*

Meet Me in the Stream

Article from Issue 269/2023

You don't need Facebook to keep up with your friends online. With diaspora*, you get a similar experience without the spying.

The diaspora* federated social network allows users to independently run pods (diaspora* servers) to interact with each other and the world in a "privacy first" way. Technically speaking, diaspora* is a macroblogging platform. You could say it's a Fediverse equivalent to Facebook. You can still create a space that serves as your online presence, post pictures, links, and personal reflections. But this time, you stay in control of your data.

Anyone can set up or join their own diaspora* server (called a pod) using free and open source software. Although pods are managed separately from each other, they can be federated, so someone who uses their account on the US-based can still interact with another user who's registered with the German-based

Diaspora* (Figure 1) fills the strong need for a decentralized social network in a world where the established, monolithic social media services have abused their market dominance, playing fast and loose with users' privacy (see the box entitled "Facing Up to Facebook").

Facing Up to Facebook

A previous article in this magazine [1] discussed some of the more controversial uses Facebook (now Meta) found for their customer's data, such as retaining information after you close your account and using facial recognition to identify people in photos [2].

Meta doesn't seem to have learned its lesson. In November 2022, Ireland's data privacy regulator fined the company $277 million for alleged privacy breaches. This was the fourth fine of this kind Meta had received in Europe [3].

In December 2022, Meta also paid a record $725 million for its role in the long-running Cambridge Analytica scandal, where personal data about users was made available to third parties [4].

Since these fines related to cases that were several years old, Meta was quick to reassure users that they'd since updated their website, and users now have advanced privacy settings. However, it is important to keep in mind the words of Andrew Lewis, "If you are not paying for it, you're not the customer; you're the product being sold." If Meta didn't have a way of making money on your data, they wouldn't be in business.

Figure 1: Decentralization and freedom are two key benefits of diaspora*.


The creators of diaspora* drew their inspiration from a 2010 speech to the Internet Society by Columbia University Law Professor Eben Moglen, who described monolithic, centralized social networks as "spying for free"[5]. The dev team smashed their Kickstarter funding goals, and the first diaspora* pod was launched later that same year. The fact that diaspora* has been in development for almost 13 years gives it an edge over other decentralized social networks that are newer to the game and have had less time to work out the kinks.


While setting up your own server is the best way to control your personal information (see the box entitled "Setting Up a Server"), this approach takes time and resources. Fortunately there are a number of pods around the world run by eager volunteers. You don't even have to run to your nearest search engine to find them, as the Fediverse Observer website [9] maintains a list of servers running alternative social media instances, including diaspora* (Figure 2).

Figure 2: The Fediverse Observer at will help you find a diaspora* pod to join.

Setting Up a Server

The lack of one monolithic server in diaspora* means that data is much less likely to be hacked or misused, particularly if you set up your own diaspora* pod using the foundation's source code, which is freely available via GitHub. [6]

Setting up a server should present no challenge at all to anyone who has previously run one. The diaspora* Foundation has very clear installation instructions, though at this time of writing the software won't run on Ubuntu 22.04 or Debian 11 [7].

The Network Admin FAQ points out the software is a standard Rails application, so it can run quite happily with Passenger or a reverse proxy configuration with Apache or NGINX. There's no requirement to use SSL, but pods that do must have a commercial certificate (i.e., they can't be self-signed) [8].

These lists make for sobering reading, as even the most popular diaspora* pods only host a few thousand users, compared to Facebook's billions. Getting started is usually just a question of going to a diaspora* pod's website and filling in your email address, name, and password. Some pods, such as, require you to email to request an invitation link. Otherwise, setup is a breeze.

Diaspora* uses hashtags (e.g., #linux) to help you record and search for your interests. When registering a new account, you'll be asked to enter a hashtagged topic in order to see relevant content on that topic in your main stream, which is a newsfeed by any other name.

When the main screen loads for the first time, a helpful wizard also guides you through diaspora*'s main features (Figure 3). As pods are run by volunteers who aren't profiting from selling targeted ads, new users are sometimes asked to make a small donation. This isn't compulsory.

Figure 3: The diaspora* welcome wizard talks you through the sidebar and how to write your first post.


One huge advantage diaspora* still boasts over its bigger brother Facebook is that there's still no requirement to use your real name when registering an account (Figure 4), which will be welcome news to those who have been victims of stalking and online harassment.

Figure 4: Unlike Facebook, you can use any name you want when registering a diaspora* account.

If this isn't enough incentive to make the switch from Meta, diaspora* also has much more clearly defined privacy settings, which are enabled by default. First and foremost is diaspora*'s use of aspects. Aspects are similar to the circles formerly used by Google, as well as Facebook's audiences. When you create a post, you can choose who can view it.

The default setting is that posts are public but you can change this using the drop-down menu, so that only people in your "Family," "Friends," "Work," or "Acquaintances" can view what you post (Figure 5).

Figure 5: You can choose to share posts only with certain aspects like family, friends, work, or acquaintances.

You can create new aspects, which is useful because diaspora* has no equivalent feature to Facebook's groups. You can also create an aspect with a specific group of contacts. Provided all of you add everyone else to that specific aspect, you can share posts only with each other. This is effectively the same as a private Facebook group.

Your contacts have no way of knowing to which of your aspects you've added them, unless you choose to tell them. You can also use the sidebar to see only posts from people in a particular aspect, such as your family [10].

If you create a diaspora* account, take a moment to review the rather minimalist privacy options by clicking on your name at the top right and then choosing Settings. Unlike Facebook, where you must manually enable most extra privacy features, diaspora* operates on an "opt-in" basis. For instance, by default you won't start sharing information with a contact just because they're sharing with you. (You can enable this of course.) From here, you can also change the default aspect for those who can see what you're posting from "Public" to something else.

Since our last review, diaspora* has also introduced a special web protocol. Any link to a diaspora* page on an external website that uses this protocol can be opened in the pod on which your diaspora* account is registered. This feature is still in the testing stage, and you must enable it manually.

The Privacy section of the account is even more spartan, though this may be because the developers have already thought of most ways you need to stay safe. During our tests, we saw that this section automatically enables stripping all metadata from images you upload, such as location, author, and camera model.

You can also enable two-factor authentication (2FA) from the Settings menu, as well as export all your user account data or photos. If a simple VPN isn't enough, some pods, such as, are also reachable via a Tor (.onion) hidden service and I2P (.i2p), though this is a matter for the pod admin to set up.

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