Is another social network* possible?

I’m not a Facebook refusenik – I’d feel a bit other-worldly shunning Facebook when large portions of absent friends’ lives are announced on it and when I’m simultaneously up to my eyeballs in Google. But I’m a more or less silent participant. When I go on Facebook I have two accounts – a tumbleweed one in my own name and a pseudonymous one where I mostly just befriend and look. Sometimes I respond by ‘liking’ my friends’ postings but as Eli Pariser observes, it doesn’t seem quite right to ‘like’ a story of an Iranian adulterer getting stoned to death and consequently Facebook’s algorithm, heavily weighted towards the Like button, tends to subdue that kind of news – in any it case interferes with the business-model-friendly dopamine that goes with genuinely taking pleasure in something. This is known as the ‘filter bubble’.

An alternative to this kind of social network does exist in the form of Diaspora*, a decentralised social network with anti-Facebook origins. Diaspora* has had a rocky time recently but what happened last week reminded me about it. Ilya Zhitomirskiy, co-founder of Diaspora* died a couple of weekends ago in a San Francisco hotel room after an incandescent life of 22 years. Here’s what inspires me about Ilya Zhitomirskiy. His rejection of the profit motive. His commitment to the liberation technology movement. His technical flair. His work ethic. The contrast between his youth and achievements. His understanding that if your project and graduate education aren’t compatible, you go with the project. His reputedly epic parties. His commitment to privacy – even Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg invested in Diaspora*. But all the same, it was hard being Ilya.

So, in tribute, this is him.

And this is what he was working on:

I’m sure he’d have been happy if there were a bit more about Diaspora* in this post and although I try not to make a habit of plugging any particular bit of software, I’ll venture a comparison below between Facebook, Diaspora*, and their main contender, Google+.

Below are some questions it’s good to ask when you’re choosing a social network platform, and an attempt at answering them (which was very time consuming and not so straightforward – things change so quickly in this field).

What’s the cost?

Diaspora*: free, open source, doesn’t claim rights to your personal data. However, all services have running costs (keeping the software up-to-date, maintaining and upgrading the server hardware and networking infrastructure, security procedures, electricity, etc so expect somebody to have to pay something).

Facebook: it doesn’t cost you anything up-front but Facebook’s model depends on harvesting your personal data and using it to match you with the adverts you’re most likely to click. So for example an advertiser might cough up 3p each to know your interests, and interests might be treated as better indicators of buying intentions than, say, your marital status, which might cost 1p. That’s not to argue that a business model where you pay with your personal data rather than money is wrong in principle, but it needs to be transparent and you need to be able to withhold data and know where it’s going, so you can make a decision about whether or not to pay for a service with it.

Google+: similar to Facebook.

Who owns your data?

Diaspora*: you own it, you can export it. Diaspora* allows you to be pseudonymous if you prefer, since it is trying to reconcile sharing and privacy.

Facebook: you own it, and by using Facebook you lend it to Facebook. In 2009, Facebook got into trouble for rewording its Terms of Service in such a way as it in theory gave them rights to use your stuff as they wished for ever. A more generous take on this is that when you shared, say, a photo on Facebook it becomes part of your friends’ experience – they comment on it, tag it, and so on. So is that still your private photo? In the physical world it would be, but in the online world it’s not so cut and dried.

GooglePlus: you own it, and by using Google you lend it to Google. Google is widely recognised as pioneering privacy and transparency. Google is not a search engine or video repository, though – like Facebook it is a vast data harvesting business which makes money by matching buyers with goods and services by personalising searches and displaying personalised adverts.

Can I trust the privacy settings?

Diaspora*: yes – no complaints so far. Its business model has no stake in compromising privacy.

Facebook: has on occasion revealed private data when it changed Facebook’s privacy functionality. The trouble with Facebook is that it has lost goodwill over the years and caused its users to clam up, falsify data, and stop responding to the ads. All of these things make the ads less effective, so the value of the personal data Facebook is selling diminishes, and one avenue Facebook has hitherto used is to mine even more of its users data. A vicious circle was looking unbreakable – however, as of November 10th, new privacy controls are opt-in, so from now on your privacy settings won’t change on you overnight.

Google+ – Google prides itself on transparency with privacy, and where it leads the rest of the industry tends to follow. You may have noticed its media campaign on privacy recently, in partnership with the Citizens Advice Bureau. However, there are some areas of privacy on Google it’s hard to understand.

More comparison of Google and Facebook from Wired magazine (29 June 2011).

Where is it hosted?

Diaspora*: Diaspora is decentralised, so you (and your friends) find and join one of the UK pods i.e. communities. You’re by no means restricted to UK pods – just that the nearer they are the faster they’re likely to work for you. The big difference between Diaspora* and the big centralised networks like GooglePlus and Facebook becomes clear – Diaspora* currently is not a big world meeting place they have designs to be. If you want to meet and organise on Diaspora*, you’ll need to get your community to sign up because chances are they won’t be there.

Facebook: similar to Google+, below.

Google+: hosted on Google’s own servers in the US, with the potential to host in whichever state where the laws are most favourable to Google’s business model.

What’s the exit strategy?

If you want to leave the network, what happens to your stuff?

Diaspora*: you can export all your data and photos in a couple of clicks.

Facebook: there have been arguments about who can and can’t export your friends contact list, including their private email addressesYou can now export an archive of your stuff, and recently it seems that Facebook is somewhat softening its attitude to making that data importable elsewhere. If and when you close your account, subject to your privacy settings the stuff you have made public and that has therefore become part of your friends’ interactions, remains ‘out there’, but no longer identified with your account. (I hope that’s up to date – Facebook changed its privacy policy since – even changed the name of its privacy policy – and it’s gone a bit vague on that…

Google+: there’s Google Takeout, which allows you to export all your data for easy import into other environments.

Does it integrate with my other online spaces?

Diaspora*: you can easily post to Facebook and Twitter from Diaspora – currently it’s push only, you can’t pull things in e.g. posting on Twitter and having the post appear in Diaspora*. It has a bookmarklet that you can click on to post something to your Diaspora* wall.

Facebook: Facebook makes it very easy to post to Facebook from other places.

Google+: makes it very easy to post to Google from elsewhere. Google is requiring that any service that accesses its Contacts API (allows third party software to automate the export/import process) offers reciprocity. Facebook won’t offer reciprocity, so you can’t import your Google contacts into Facebook (or Diaspora*, for that matter).

So that’s it. Not much about functionality, I realise – but there’s more to life than that.

Finally, related bonus link – Eli Pariser’s 10 things you can do to pop your filter bubble.

*No, not an asterisk – it represents an airborne dandelion seed, a little bit of a literal diaspora.

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