We’ve all heard the stories about people getting fired from jobs because of overly revealing Facebook photos, or of couples breaking up by changing their Facebook “relationship status” before even talking to one another. Though Facebook is meant to exist in virtual reality, we have given it the power to seep into and intermingle with our actual reality in ways we can’t always control.
Four student programmers from NYU’s Courant Institute, like many of us, see this as a huge problem. Only unlike most of us, they aim to do something about it.
Introducing Diaspora*, “the privacy aware, personally controlled, do-it-all distributed open source social network.” Created by the aforementioned nerds from NYU–Daniel Grippi, Maxwell Salzberg, Raphael Sofaer, and Ilya Zhitomirskiy–Diaspora* aims to give anyone their own “seed,” a personal web server that stores personal information, photos, and media and shares it with friends.
Sound similar to Facebook? It is, only Diaspora* aims to cut out the middleman, the centralized power that takes and redistributes your personal information without your ultimate control. As Grippi explains in a short video, “In our real lives, we talk to each other. We don’t need to hand our messages to a hub.”
“Social networks have only existed for ten years,” continues Grippi. “We don’t know what’s going to happen to our data. It’s going to exist into the perceivable future. So… we need to take control of it.”
The four Diaspora* inventors bonded at NYU and were inspired to work on a distributed social network after a particularly rousing talk from a professor about privacy and ownership online. Watching two short videos of the four programmers reveals them as young, awkward computer buffs whose stilted speech reveals an underlying enthusiasm that is somewhat impeded by a lack of social skills. In short, your classic geeks who supposedly subsist off ramen and spend late nights hashing out new mind-blowing codes.
Their vision is decidedly more mainstream. Rather than abandoning social networking altogether, they want to give users the ability to reveal what they want to reveal with whomever they choose. “Sharing is a human value,” explains Salzburg. “I think we all agree that sharing is what makes the internet really awesome.”
They decided to try to fund their project using Kickstarter, an online platform that allows creative projects to collect seed money from friends, families, and strangers passionate about their work. Kickstarter collects 5% of donations if a project is successfully funded (meets the goal set out by the creative project by a certain deadline). To see an example of another Kickstarter project currently fundraising, check out San Francisco-based Annie Bacon’s Kickstarter goal of recording her Folk Opera.
Diaspora* set out to raise $10,000 in five weeks, but it only took 12 days to raise that quantity. By now, they have raised $173,495 from 5,204 different sources and they still have 13 days to go. Interestingly, this surprising success might be their biggest drawback. The pressure to develop the software by the end of the summer has mounted. And Diaspora* is not the first group that has attempted to create a viable user-controlled social media network. Writes Mushon Zer-Aviv, a blogger and media activist who claims to have taught one of the Diaspora* students, on his blog Mushon.com: “The open source community has 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…It’s not impossible, but also not trivial.”
Time will tell if Diaspora* can stay true to its promise of releasing the software by the end of the summer. The atmosphere seems just right. A recent New York Times article argues that people in their 20’s are becoming more cautious about online privacy. Diaspora*, if it manifests itself according to plan, could be the ticket to repossessing your online identity.