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Summary:

As Facebook has drawn fire from critics over the way it handles user information, interest in finding an alternative has grown to the point where a project to create an open-source social network raised $200,000 in a matter of weeks. But does it have a chance?

As Facebook has become an increasingly powerful magnet for controversy — over privacy and the way it handles user information, but also over the sheer size and dominance of the social network — interest has grown in finding some kind of open alternative. Perhaps the most obvious sign of that is the frenzy of support for a new project called Diaspora, which describes itself as “the privacy aware, personally controlled, do-it-all, open source social network.” But does this upstart platform, or any open-source alternative for that matter, stand a real chance of competing with Facebook?

Diaspora was put together by a team of students from New York University and went public on the “crowdfunding” platform Kickstarter in April, and within weeks had raised more money than any project the site had ever seen. By the time the fundraising closed, it had more than $200,000 from thousands of donations. That’s definitely a big vote of confidence in the idea, which is essentially to build an open and distributed social network that could duplicate some of what Facebook does, but without the proprietary standards and without being controlled by a single company (the team describes its vision in a video embedded below).

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg likes to say that the thing he is worried about the most is an unknown startup, but the fact remains that his company has 500 million users, and an estimated $1 billion in revenue, and even the team behind Diaspora admits that it is currently little more than an idea and some rough code. At this point, it seems a little like a contest between a mouse and an 800-pound gorilla — and those typically don’t end well for the mouse. Some observers have also raised questions about whether the money Diaspora has gathered through donations — some of which, ironically, came from Mark Zuckerberg himself — will be enough to produce anything workable, given the promises that Diaspora has made to those who donated (including T-shirts, CDs and a year’s worth of phone support). Jason Fried of 37signals argued in a recent post that the project has actually been “cursed” by the attention it has gotten, because it has raised expectations too high.

While there are other attempts to put together an open-source alternative to Facebook — including Appleseed, which has been around for several years — Diaspora seems to have tapped into a rich vein of anti-Facebook sentiment, fueled in part by the company’s recent changes to its privacy settings. There has also been increasing pressure on Facebook to allow users to extract their data from the social network and either back it up or move it elsewhere. The social network has pledged its support for the Data Portability project in the past — and Zuckerberg reiterated it vaguely in his recent speech launching the network’s new privacy controls — but it has done little to make that a reality.

The big unanswered question, however, is just how much of the frustration and irritation with Facebook exists only in the insular technology blogosphere — elevated by activism on the part of consumer advocacy groups in putting pressure on government — and how much is a real reflection of widespread dissatisfaction with the social network. And even if there is dissatisfaction, it’s not clear how deep it runs, or how long it will last. Facebook managed to weather a similar storm of controversy following its introduction of the news feed, something that was widely criticized but has since become hugely popular.

Alternatives like Diaspora have to prove that they have something compelling that will justify users adopting the service as a new standard or a new home for their content, or even justify exploring it as an alternative. Facebook, for all its flaws, is a known quantity with a well-established use case, and network effects mean that virtually any user of the site has dozens of friends he or she is connected to, which means that moving elsewhere will take a significant amount of psychological effort. Diaspora is going to need some pretty big incentives to change that behavior. It seems unlikely that “we are more open” will do the trick.

In addition to the psychological barrier, Diaspora and its fellow alternatives require users to have a certain amount of technological know-how, and that is going to restrict their appeal. Using Facebook is as simple as clicking a mouse button or typing in a text box, but from the sounds of the project, Diaspora in its initial stages will require users to run a version of the software on their own PCs (although the site says there will be a professionally hosted version as well). Not everyone is going to like that idea, or be able to implement it. Twitter has at least one competitor with a similar model — Identi.ca — but it has gotten very little uptake from mainstream users, even when those users were outraged about Twitter’s repeated downtime problems.

Everyone loves to root for an underdog (some are optimistic about Diaspora’s chances), and Facebook is clearly in the spotlight on privacy and other issues for a number of very good reasons. But it is going to take a lot more than some clever code and $200,000 to build something that can be a realistic alternative to the world’s largest social network.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d): Facebook Tries to Navigate the Privacy Storm

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Fabbio

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  1. Erik Bigelow Saturday, June 5, 2010

    As someone who is also building a slightly similar project, Get6d (http://www.get6d.com). I still don’t think Facebook is going anywhere for a long time. People want to talk to friends and don’t care how. That’s why we didn’t build a distributed social network. We built an identity building application with the ability to be a distributed social network. Yes this is a little self-promotion, but I think that’s what some of these other distributed social networks aren’t getting and why none have taken off.

    People’s identity IS important to them, and their future, and this is a way for people to really take control of that. People are becoming more aware that if you don’t have full control of your identity online it’s left to interpretation, and that interpretation generally isn’t good.

    Ways to keep up with friends though are a good thing, and so Facebook will stay awhile. We don’t care. We’re gonna build a plugin to 6d to let you talk to your Facebook friends even. All we care about is that people have the ability to present themselves accurately online. You need to be John Smith online and not John Smith on Facebook online. Once enough people separate their identity from how they communicate we’ll realize we have a distributed social network.

  2. Isn’t it too early to talk about Diaspora as a Facebook-Killer? yeah, definitely there is a huge space for diaspora-like open network.

  3. Subhash Bose Saturday, June 5, 2010

    Apologize beforehand for my posting but I think it is time to tell the truth…

    If I see facebook or twitter or myspace anywhere nowadays, I feel like throwing up…yes that is exactly how I feel.. dont we have enough of these “social” crap?

  4. Neil Mansilla Sunday, June 6, 2010

    Facebook is not losing any sleep over Diaspora. There are bigger fish to fry that concern Facebook, including the likes of Google, Microsoft, Ning, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc. All of these companies have brains, cash and code and are working on ways to do what Facebook does (users spending gobs of time) into the context of their [expanding] social media models.

    Facebook surely realizes that, like all other free services, there is no such thing as true user loyalty. When the next big things comes around, that they are vulnerable and may become the next monolith of yesteryear. (i.e. MySpace, Yahoo, Altavista, Lycos, Excite, Webcrawler, Infoseek, etc.)

  5. As always, geeks will lead the way. Everyone loved Yahoo! but the geeks found Google, and now it rules search.

    We will seek an alternative to Facebook, and it will grow. I will be slow, because most Facebook users just will not care.

    Eventually another open solution (perhaps Diaspora) will succeed.

    The future is not what it used to be…

  6. Should Facebook Be Worried About Diaspora? « Morgan and Me | Intuitive Design & Strategy Sunday, June 6, 2010
  7. Too soon to talk about Diaspora.

  8. Well…I hope so…I hate the sound of Facebook now. Twitter although somewhat different is more preferred.

  9. ilana diamant Sunday, June 6, 2010

    As others have commented, FB isn’t concerned over Diaspora, yet. Much like Tweeter isn’t concerned about identi.ca. Both FB and Tweeter are social software and have huge switching costs: people join them because others have joined them too, not because they necessarily like the technologies. Which is why so many that are upset over FB’s privacy won’t leave FB any time soon.

  10. Techsputter Sunday, June 6, 2010

    Surrounded by many controversies!! But still Facebook manages to go strong!!

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