Oceania Diaspora - Social Media Week on BTR


Facebook CEO and co-founder Mark Zuckerberg. Photo by Brian Solis.

When I was assigned this week’s writing assignment, the topic read: “NYU Students and Social Media Diaspora.” As a non-Facebook member, and advocate of rejecting most forms of Social Media, I was thrilled. By nature of the term (the dispersion of a large group of people from an original homeland), I assumed I would be writing on a large group of university students who were refusing to be a part of the social media generation in replace of face-to-face interaction with real friends.

How wrong I was. The use of the term, it turns out, is a bit of a misnomer. It refers only to Facebook and not to the larger umbrella term of Social Media. What a let down.

The basic idea behind the Diaspora Project is to return the power of ownership back to the user rather than the platform that provides the service. It is still a social network; it just holds you in control of your own personal data. The idea is simple and clean, and aims to expose the number one discussed weakness of Facebook: privacy.

Facebook members, for the most part, are very aware that their information is being shared by the company with online market researchers, advertisers and numerous other data collection agencies who make more money by knowing more about you. While Facebook may seem like a Goliath too large to overcome (there are currently more than 800 million active users), the idealism of Diaspora’s four creators, Daniel Grippi, Maxwell Salzberg, Raphael Sofaer, and Ilya Zhitomirskiy, is inspiring.

Essentially, Diaspora wants to remove the “hub” out of the interconnectedness of two people sharing information from their computer. Similar to the way electricity is gathered at a transformer before being dispersed throughout the city, the information you upload on Facebook all goes through the servers at Facebook headquarters. Therein lies their “gotcha”—use their servers to distribute material and they are going to take ownership of it, sell it, and make a buck. Diaspora will cut out the middleman. Instead, if you and I are friends on Diaspora, our computers will speak to each other directly and share information that only you and I want to share, and never have to give up our rights to do so.

It is not without its challenges. For one, I am curious to know how it intends to make money. While Facebook’s business model may appear as the evil Orwellian society with Zuckerberg playing the role of oligarchic dictator, it makes a pile of money. Secondly, it will be a challenge to make it simple. Its original Alpha model asks for users to install specific plug-ins, has your Mac or PC act as a seed to connect to other seeds, or install a turn-key service like WordPress.com. For any of us who have watched non-tech savvy users struggle to upload a video on Facebook, Diaspora could scare them away before they even get their account set up. Lastly, I am curious as to how I am able to login (or if I am able to login) to my Diaspora account from a computer other than my own, specifically one that has not already installed the necessary plugins to run Diaspora’s software.

Ultimately, I applaud NYU and the Diaspora team for stepping in the ring against a Goliath-size opponent. Thousands have supported their vision already and their gusto to take back the ownership of their online lives is admirable. Let’s just hope it is Diaspora who benefits from this model, and not Zuckerberg who could buy-out its patent and shut it down before we ever get a chance at life in the Outer Party.