My first look at DIASPORA*

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Jan 21, 2011 GMT
Bruce Byfield

I've always been ambiguous about Facebook. The centralized control and lack of privacy bother me, and, like many people involved with free software, I'm there mainly because so many of my colleagues are. Consequently, when I finally got around to getting to getting an account for the DIASPORA* alpha, what I mainly noticed was the difference in the privacy policy and interface

DIASPORA*, in case you don't remember, is the free software alternative to Facebook, consisting of a number of connected but independent servers -- or "hubs" in DIASPORA*-speak. Although less than a year old, the project has already received considerable attention -- first because, in the tradition of the great IT myth, it was conceived by a group of college students, and, second, because it raised one of the largest total of donations ever on Kickstarter. A few months ago, there were also considerable complaints about the lack of security in the pre-alpha release.

I can't speak about the code. However, judging by the privacy pollicy and the interface, DIASPORA* now appear to be taking security more seriously.

Privacy policy

Being the kind of person who reads licenses (and who helped to write a couple), one of the first differences I noticed between DIASPORA* and Facebook is the privacy policy. If you read Facebook's policy, you soon realize that it amounts to a list of what information you are ceding control over -- that is, almost everything you post, especially since Facebook reserves the right to make whatever changes and exceptions it chooses.

By contrast, the DIASPORA* policy is not only in clearer English, but more explicit about exactly how your information is used. In particular, the policy promises that information such as credit card numbers will not be stored permanently, and will not be passed along to anyone else. If the policy changes, the project promises to post revisions. The policy concludes with links you can use to ask for further questions.

All of this is reassuring to those of us concerned about privacy, although the real proof, of course, will be in how the policy is carried out. But DIASPORA* is obviously trying to living up to its ideals.

In fact, at times, those associated with DIASPORA* almost go too far: At least one hub I saw listed not only the main privacy policy, but also that of the hub, its service provider, and a couple of other associated parties. The extent of this disclosure is formidable enough that I can imagine it encouraging users not to read any of the policies, but at least DIASPORA* offers the option.

Interface and Organization

Although functionally, DIASPORA* and Facebook are (or will be) similar, comparing DIASPORA*'s interface to Facebook's is probably unfair. Not only is DIASPORA* incomplete and simpler than it will eventually become, but, for the foreseeable future, most of its pages are going to have far less information on them than the average Facebook page.

Still, even taking such differences into account, DIASPORA*'s interface still promises to be easier to use than any of Facebook's endless incarnations. Where Facebook seems to hide features more levels down with each interface change, DIASPORA*'s shows signs of far more elegance. Settings and summaries are clustered at the top of a user page, where they can be more easily located,, and grouped so that similar types of information, such as additional DIASPORA* resources, are clustered together. As a result, you can feel comfortable using DIASPORA* almost immediately.

Some of DIASPORA's features, such as the delete button in the upper right corner of a post, could be borrowed from Facebook. But DIASPORA*'s most interesting feature is Aspects, or sub-profiles.

While DIASPORA* allows you to post messages and other material from your home page so that all your contacts can see them, you can also choose to post only to members of a particular aspect -- for example, only to your high school friends, present friends, work colleagues, or the members of your favorite meetup group. This feature should not only cut down the clutter of messages on each user's home page, but also help them to control who reads their information.

In comparison, Facebook does allow you to choose only select targets, but only several clicks down in the depths of the interface, where I suspect that most people are completely unaware of the possibility. Most Facebook users are more likely to limit recipients to friends (which is hardly private these days, when most users have over 400 friends), or friends of friends (which could easily mean broadcasting to 160,000 of your most intimate acquaintances). But, by featuring Aspects prominently in the interface, DIASPORA* makes it much easier for users concerned about privacy to actively do something about it.

Walking the walk

None of these observations mean that DIASPORA* is headed for success. Having come first and being so much larger, Facebook might easily fend off all alternatives. In fact, considering the embarrassment with which people seem to talk about friend requests these days, Facebook-like sites may have declined in popularity before DIASPORA* reaches general release.

All the same, DIASPORA* appears to be at least trying to take privacy concerns seriously. And that's a welcome sight, regardless of what happens in the long run.


  • Good Article

    Right out of the gate, I think you mean 'ambivalent' and not 'ambiguous'.

    Nice article, thank you for the overview.
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