Diaspora’s Kickstarter $$$,$$$ success endangers both Diaspora, Kickstarter & you

The Internets is all buzzing with chatter against Facebook’s latest privacy breaches. Into this happy mix a bunch of NYU students have been cast as the Davids against the social networking Goliath. Is that really a good thing? Can we help?

Friends are there... or are they?

Diaspora is a new initiative by 4 NYU students to create a “privacy aware, personally controlled, do-it-all distributed open source social network” by the end of the summer. A worthy mission indeed with quite an ambitious time line.

Doing what every smart start-up would do, the Diaspora founders seized the moment, and on April 24th published a video presenting the idea and started a Kickstarter campaign to crowdfund (distributed seed donations) the project. They set a goal of raising $10,000 in 5 weeks time.

Some FB users got sick of their own impotent frustration and decided the answer should be Diaspora. The project’s Kickstarter campaign has become a referendum on Facebook with geeks expressing their frustration by throwing many $$$s at Diaspora’s direction. For better or worse this is done out of protest against Facebook, not necessarily out of faith in Diaspora.

News of Diaspora being cast as the battlefront against Facebook spread fast, with twitter updates informing blogposts (and , , , , …), (ironically) informing Facebook updates, informing a New York Times article. At the time this post is published Diaspora have met their funding goal almost 18 times.

This is all great BUT…

This is supposed to be an open source, community effort kinda thing, not a start-up. It is kinda alarming as this pressure to deliver something by the end of the summer something so complex is not necessarily going to help them. The open source community have been trying to develop peer to peer web solutions for ages. There are many reasons why we have not seen a strong distributed social web yet. Some of these reasons are technical, other are social, it’s not impossible, but also not trivial.

Scratching everybody else's itch (By Daveblog CC-BY-SA-ND)

It is not unlikely that Diaspora would fail to deliver on it’s promised milestone by the end of the summer. This should not be a big deal for an Open Source project with developers scratching their own itch. But in this case, the Facebook users frustration, Diaspora’s media attention and the actual $$$,$$$ make this an itch shared by many many more users and only 4 students are given the scratcher.

Frankly, as inspiring as this successful Kickstarter campaign is, I do believe they would’ve been better with no money at all and no thousands of “micro-investors” waiting for them to deliver. Money changes everything, and firstly this is no longer a campaign supporting the open source community to find a solution together. This is (as a friend mentioned) a high-payed summer internship.

I’ve always supported the idea of failing gracefully, especially when it comes to open source software. But in this case, a failure would be not only for Diaspora but also for what it stand for – a distributed, privacy-friendly open alternative (/resistance) to FB and the other exploitative web 2.0 shenanigans. If all this attention is turned to disappointment, Facebook will come out of this winning.

Being a huge record breaking Kickstarter project, this project has now also become a poster-child for Kickstarter and its inspiring crowdfunding model. If Diaspora fails to meet its promises, it might actually hurt Kickstarter’s reputation and trust. Open source does not work that way and these guys do mean well but they have yet not published a single line of code.

Contribute your code, not your $$$,$$$s

Max, one of the four NYU students was a student of mine, I am familiar with the excitement, enthusiasm and creativity he can bring to the project. There is no way they could see this coming and I know they are pretty overwhelmed right now. They don’t need more money, but they need a lot more help. The real help Diaspora needs now is guidance, support and code. We at ShiftSpace who’ve been working on distributed social web for quite some time intend to contribute that to them.

Some initial tips:

  1. They should start by a real deep research of what’s already out there, learn from the work on OneSocialWeb, Status.net, DiSo, BuddyPress, Activity Streams, CouchDB, even Google Wave (speaking of an open source project too hyped for its own good). Some of these are already mentioned on their site, but they should really be studied thoroughly. Only doing that might take more than 4 months. Which brings me to #2…
  2. They should change their milestone promise ASAP, as this is not what they should accomplish in the next 4 months and they should not be held back by it.
  3. When they do write their own code, they should not wait until the end of the summer to publish their code. They should release early, release often.
  4. They should not build this as a monolithic project but componenatize it to smaller more general projects that can gather more contributions.
  5. They should not see this as a high-paying 4 months gig, but really turn Diaspora to a home or an umbrella project for these various types of efforts.
  6. They need to make sure the AGPL license as rightfully chosen as it is, doesn’t harm their chances of integrating other code and collaborating with other open source licenses. (there are ways to do it)
  7. Maybe even offer a portion of the funding they didn’t plan to get anyway as a grant to the first team to come up with an open protocol that the developer community would like to gather behind.

So start send them code patches, not more $$$,$$$s. And leave your comments here and/or on the GPL Social list where they promised to hang out. And lets try not to overwhelm them, but really make sure this translates to an inspiring moment towards “a” (not “the”) ‘…privacy aware, personally controlled, do-it-all distributed open source social…’ web.

This entry was posted in in English and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

14 Comments

  1. Posted May 19, 2010 at 9:11 am | Permalink

    The first problem the Diaspora team needs to solve in developing a distributed system is the
    identity/reputation of the participating computers.

    Freenet may have some pointers.

    With that not insubstantial problem cracked they can build from there, optimising the distribution and replication of information according to interest.

    On top of that you then have the users’ identity/reputation issues.

    And then the icing on the cake (that must come last) are the matters of privacy, secrecy, confidentiality, and discretion.

    Privacy is physical and a misnomer in the context of distributed systems – best not to use the term at all.

    Secrecy can be contrived to a limited extent via cryptography.

    Confidentiality and discretion are inclinations of people, matters of honour/reputation and cannot be enforced through technology (or law). They can still be measured and incorporated as part of a reputation metric.

    So really, what you end up with is simply a means of assuring high availability of all the information that anyone is still interested in. Moreover, guarantees will still be expensive. People will have to pay for guarantees of persistence and prevalence – if you don’t pay, and your information is uninteresting, it may degrade to offline storage, ultimately to evaporate.

    • mushon
      Posted May 20, 2010 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

      I think the distinction between limiting private/public debate to the more nuanced terms of privacy, secrecy, confidentiality, and discretion are important. Can you see intimacy anywhere there too?

      I have been writing about intimacy and engagement in my previous two posts, I wonder what’s your take on that in the light of a search for other social networking services.

      Confidentiality and discretion are inclinations of people, matters of honour/reputation and cannot be enforced through technology (or law).

      I could not agree more.

      Diaspora and many other attempts at a more negotiated model of social media tools are right to claim we (the users) need to be a part of this debate. What I have yet not seen is a truly groundbreaking commitment on their part to provide better leadership than that currently provided by Facebook.

      • Posted May 25, 2010 at 3:17 am | Permalink

        If by ‘intimacy’ you mean ‘shared privacy’, then I’d include this within the definition of privacy, i.e. the physically bounded space occupied and shared by one or more people. Simply because you are disclosing information to another doesn’t mean that you and that other don’t enjoy joint privacy – against intrusion from those not privy.

        However, sending your loved one a highly personal message on a public noticeboard can’t supernaturally create an aura of privacy around it. People may respect that it is not intended for public discourse, but this does not constitute a physical boundary.

        Diaspora is part of a recognition that it is dangerous for corporations to become gatekeepers for human relationships. If the public are to have public facilities (for communication, e-mail, social networking, etc.) then those facilities should also be public (publicly owned, funded, administered), and what better way of assuring that than to utilise distributed systems – facilities that no-one owns and yet that everyone provides. The proverbial Stone Soup.

        The issue of privacy is a red herring. What gets people’s goat is the autocracy of the Facebook corporation. So, in some ways, the last thing you should hope for from Diaspora is leadership, because that’s what you’re getting from Facebook. The best we can hope for from Diaspora is that they reach out to others working in similar areas with similar goals, to collaboratively implement a distributed system paid for by the interested public (and so copyleft) – not to assume they’ve been given a public grant to become a profit driven, autocratic corporation, with the proviso it has less authoritarian tendencies than Facebook.

        • mushon
          Posted May 25, 2010 at 6:58 am | Permalink

          Maybe not leadership, but definitely management or facilitation. These efforts need a home, that’s why I proposed Diaspora should become an umbrela project. They have become the poster childs of distributed social networking and on a communicative level have delivered a story people (and NYTimes reporters) found appealing. That gives them a heads up for adoption. By the end of the summer when the ‘where is Diaspora today’ and ‘what have they done with our money’ blogposts are being written, Diaspora should be ready to relay the voice of the community. If they later chose to provide a hosted business solution, then that’s up to them, but it’s not the point. The point is we need distributed social networking and the attention for doing that has been focused on them.
          It might not be technological or conceptual leadership that would be their main input. But the efforts have been branded as ‘Diaspora’ and now it’s up to the community to decide what it means.

      • Shannon Jacobs
        Posted Sep 4, 2011 at 8:17 pm | Permalink

        Actually I had a similar idea before I heard about Kickstarter, but my version included project management… Looks to me that Diaspora is failing quick badly. The “success” was an illusion.

        Here’s my alternative idea. My interest is as one of the small donors, but I actually could afford to loan some of the money to start it up…

        http://eco-epistemology.blogspot.com/2009/11/economics-of-small-donors-reverse.html

  2. Honieh B
    Posted May 19, 2010 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    I am in full support of this project and have said it publicly online and offline. My only concern is that there are many projects of this nature being built, so what sets these 4 students apart? Is it because the media picked up on their story? Is it because they posted this proposal on Kickstarter.com (very cool business model btw), which must be extremely thankful for the press they received this week via Diaspora.

    Many of the supporter “backers” on kickstarter.com have commented on the Diaspora page with remarks such as, most people are only donating because it “supposedly” rectifies the privacy issue that Facebook is forcing upon it’s users.

    There are also critiques that state the public is just throwing money at this project to transition themselves off of Facebook onto another unknown platform they don’t know how to correctly to maneuver.

    Whatever the case maybe I think the enthusiasm, idea, and open source “philosophy” that these students are undertaking to build this platform this summer is one to be praised and embraced.

    I just hope that the money being funded doesn’t deter them from the goal they set out. The financial backing can either be the uproar or killer of this project. There will always be newer innovations, companies, sites.. It is up to media to choose for the general public which Social Networking Site to join.

    Removing one from Facebook has becoming more and more difficult. Users are unable to delete their accounts, but can “deactivate.” Web 2.0 suicide has been severely hacked, and 2000 users have joined a group on FB plotting to remove themselves on May 31.

    I wonder if by removing the ownership of our personal info back into our own hand’s will solve the problem of SNSes or will it just lead us to find something else wrong with being online entities.

  3. Honieh B
    Posted May 19, 2010 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    Great article Mushon!

    I am in full support of this project and have said it publicly online and offline. My only concern is that there are many projects of this nature being built, so what sets these 4 students apart? Is it because the media picked up on their story? Is it because they posted this proposal on Kickstarter.com (very cool business model btw), which must be extremely thankful for the press they received this week via Diaspora.

    Many of the supporter “backers” on kickstarter.com have commented on the Diaspora page with remarks such as, most people are only donating because it “supposedly” rectifies the privacy issue that Facebook is forcing upon it’s users.

    There are also critiques that state the public is just throwing money at this project to transition themselves off of Facebook onto another unknown platform they don’t know how to correctly to maneuver.

    Whatever the case maybe I think the enthusiasm, idea, and open source “philosophy” that these students are undertaking to build this platform this summer is one to be praised and embraced.

    I just hope that the money being funded doesn’t deter them from the goal they set out. The financial backing can either be the uproar or killer of this project. There will always be newer innovations, companies, sites.. It is up to media to choose for the general public which Social Networking Site to join.

    Removing one from Facebook has becoming more and more difficult. Users are unable to delete their accounts, but can “deactivate.” Web 2.0 suicide has been severely hacked, and 2000 users have joined a group on FB plotting to remove themselves on May 31.

    I wonder if by removing the ownership of our personal info back into our own hand’s will solve the problem of SNSes or will it just lead us to find something else wrong with being online entities.

  4. Posted May 21, 2010 at 6:12 pm | Permalink

    On the technical terms I can’t really argue, as I think my knowledge of coding and web design is too limited to say if this could work out till september.
    I totally disagree with this though:
    “If Diaspora fails to meet its promises, it might actually hurt Kickstarter’s reputation and trust.”
    No matter if the project fails or not, kickstarter is already the big winner in this. Kickstarter’s idea is to get resources collected for starting a project, if the developers achieve with it what they want or not, won’t change a lot on kickstarters reputation as it’s simply not the product’s job.
    Their product did succeed in it’s original function of being a base for colleting resources, and that to an absolutely astonishing extent.
    Diaspora got 18 times the moeny that they asked for: And yes, money doesn’t make this project alone. But think of the fact that especially the coding part that takes up a lot of specialist work hours, is something they can get done on time much easier with a wad of cash to pay additional people working on it next to them.
    grts
    moritz

    • mushon
      Posted May 22, 2010 at 8:55 am | Permalink

      I realize that what I’m suggesting here might seem outrageous. Afterall, what’s bad about more money? What’s bad about it is that it puts a pricetag on the development and frames it in the classic startup model – a model that has its own advantages but doesn’t really jive with the more neuanced motivations of the open source model.

      People donating to Diaspora Kickstarter campaign are trying to support an open source alternative to proprietary Facebook. Not to kickstart a traditional startup. Money complicates the open source model, when it is there even before a single line of code is written, it can be destructive.

      As for Kickstarter, don’t get me wrong. I think Kickstarter is brilliant. Even more than that, it is important!
      A lot of people have now been exposed to Kickstarter for the first time through Diaspora. I am concerned that come September/October when a kickstarter campaign comes along and Joe Sixpack is thinking should I back it or not, the Diaspora case will be there as a case study.

      I’m just concerned that it will end up as: “Oh, Kickstarter… I remember it from the Diaspora campaign. Isn’t it the croudsourcing platforms that funds people who are good at generating hype and sexy promisses but have no way of insuring delivery”

  5. Posted May 24, 2010 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    This bell can’t be unrung. What sets these NYU folks apart is, yes, all of the above – the press, the support, the initiative. And none of that is a bad thing.

    It is good advice above to roll back milestones here and it is especially excellent counsel to advocate months of research – not coding – for the summer. In fact, if this team were to take that advice, it would not only benefit the project, it could greatly publicize a sorely-needed, badly overlooked aspect of problem solving in general and software development in specific: taking research seriously. Deliberating. Getting the problem definition really, really right.

    Diaspora’s importance is not solely tied up with its product mission. What is possibly most important is that the project now serves as a message to laypeople and students about development practice under grassroots conditions. The Diaspora team can take this opportunity to express not just their solution, but a best practice under their chosen conditions: grassroots funding of a solution for the greatest good.

    tl;dr: The way they spend their time and funds is potentially even more important than what they make with these resources.

  6. Posted May 25, 2010 at 2:03 am | Permalink

    Agreeing with most of what s been said in this discussion,
    and clearly seeing the need for connection to existing projects and help from external coders and conceptualizers,

    i wanna underline the importance for Diaspora to define goals and milestones realistically, in particular with regards to privacy/secrecy.
    Now that “privacy” has grown into the mainstream killer term, so have the misunderstandings and wrong expectations.
    For any project trying to do better than facebook,
    “the privacy challenge will remain – and it would be daring to say that the successors to facebook will do better than facebook.

    even the most open, correct and privacy-respecting service will at times expose your data, reconnect you to your worst enemy, and all that.

    but i would so prefer my data being lost by a publicly owned distributed system, instead of a company whose purpose is to own them.”

    in other words, it would be important to speak clearly about intentions, while admitting the chance of failures in execution -

    as intention is where all the difference is made.

  7. Posted May 30, 2010 at 5:34 am | Permalink

    Great write up. I had some similar thoughts after a little marketing jealousy following Diaspora’s amazing fund raising. Seeking early seed funding in exchange for ownership is a big challenge for first time founders. It was a shock to see so many contributing money towards a tool that didn’t exist yet with no ownership exchanged.

    You mentioned open projects (Status.net DiSo ActivityStrea.ms etc) and this is where Diaspora can really help out.

  8. Posted Jun 8, 2010 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    Kiaora

    Some good thoughts. The question really is, what is the best way to spend $200,000? Will they pocket it and try to do the whole job themselves in 4 months, or will they sit down and work out the best ways to get value for people’s money?

    Seems to me the thing that’s really missing in decentralized social networking is an open standards body, the equivalent of Xiph.org, the XMPP Standards Foundation, or the Open Handset Alliance. A chunk of that money could go a long way towards setting up the ‘Diaspora Foundation’. Their own coding project could then be a proof of concept for whatever protocols and standards emerge from the process of bringing as many of the project groups working on libre social networking under one umbrella as possible. I documented some of them here, in a post on Quit FaceBook Day:
    http://www.coactivate.org/projects/disintermedia/blog/2010/05/24/transition-to-web-free/

    In relation to Kickstarter, people really need to keep in mind that ‘crowdsourcing’ is really just an anonymous, online form of ‘angel investment’. Nobody is expecting to get their money back, and if they follow your advice to ‘release early, release often’, or my advice to set up some organizational foundations, I think people will be happy that *something* is happening.

    Nga mihi nui
    Danyl Strype

7 Trackbacks

Post a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Subscribe without commenting