FOUR students from New York are just weeks away from taking on the world’s biggest online social network.
Inspired after hearing a law professor describe social networking as “spying for free”, Max Salberg, Dan Grippi, Raphael Sofaer and Ilya Zhitomirskiy have spent the past six months building Diaspora – the do-it-yourself Facebook.
In early October, Diaspora is scheduled to launch with all the hype expected of the arrival of a contender a global giant that’s spent the best part of 2010 struggling with negative publicity over its cavalier approach to users’ privacy.
Details on exactly how Diaspora will work are scarce. The team has either been too busy or too wary to give away their secrets just yet, preferring instead to update their blogs and Twitter feeds at sporadic intervals.
But next month they will release the source code for the site to developers, allowing them to pick up the Diaspora code, evaluate and modify it – and check it for privacy concerns.
They will get free and full access to the tools which built Diaspora and use them to create their own social networking site, or help improve Diaspora itself before its release to the general public.
The Diaspora team originally raised the $10,000 needed to quit their jobs and begin work on the site in just 12 days through capital-raising site Kickstart.
In six months, that $10,000 grew to more than $200,000 and free workspace and advice at Pivotal Laboratories in Silicon Valley.
Even Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg gave to the cause, saying he saw something of himself in the team, which has spent many cliched nights sleeping on their laboratory floors and eating pizza.
More than 31,000 followers have signed up for the @joindiaspora Twitter updates and registered their interest at the team’s blog site.
To date, it’s an amazing effort, given that all anyone’s really been told is it’s a “privacy-aware, personally controlled, do-it-all open source social network”.
What has been revealed is that users will be able to build their own social network starting with a “seed”.
From this, they can add their own networks – “hubs” – and control what information goes to what hub.
Something you say to your friends, you might not want to say to your workmates.
Things you share with your family, stay in your family.
“Once it has been set up, the seed will aggregate all of your information: your Facebook profile, tweets, anything,” the team wrote on their blog in April.
Whether it will function well enough to attract an audience is anyone’s guess.
Diaspora won’t be the first site to play the “our social network is more private than your social network card”, and it won’t be the last.
But you get enough of an idea watching video of the team’s concepts in action to realise that the idea is undoubtedly an evolution on Facebook’s comparatively one-dimensional method of sharing information.
That method works for Facebook – and plenty of other social networking sites – because it owns the information you give it.
Your personal details, photographs, artwork, likes and dislikes can all be catalogued, analysed and packaged as valuable market research for that network’s advertisers.
That’s great for Facebook, which is now valued at $33bn because of it, which in turn means it can keep on adding things like gaming, sharing and geolocation features to keep itself fresh.
But what about users who don’t care about Farmville and don’t want to have to think about whether that post their mates will find hilarious might also get them sacked?
The team Diaspora have directed most of their energy developing a user interface (UI) that makes the process of who sees what as automated as possible.
“It’s an intuitive way for users to decide, and not notice deciding, what content goes to their coworkers and what goes to their drinking buddies,” they say.
“We know that’s a hard UI problem and we take it seriously.”
They don’t have any grand illusions of jumping straight to the top of the social networking pile admitting that what users will see in October will only be “the beginning of something great, not a finished summer project”.
In fact, they’re hoping users will help make it better, faster.
But will it be a Facebook-killer? Unlikely.
The growth of Facebook is purely due to the fact that it was the first social network site that was easy for your mum to use.
It won’t be so easy to convince her to switch to Diaspora.
Diapora’s best chance lies in the possibility that one of those “seeds” that you plant can be “Facebook friends”, which according to the latest blog from the team, seems to be on the cards.
Then the two will feed off each other and the Diaspora team could congratulate themselves for building an attractive aggregator – such as the now-defunct FriendFeed – that actually works.
They’ve proved at least one thing, though – they know how to generate enormous hype about a social network that nobody really has any idea about.
All that’s left to prove now is whether they can make it work.