What if You Controlled Facebook?

Facebook has 500 million active users. If it were a country, the Kingdom of Facebook would have the third largest population on the earth. Those are impressive numbers, especially for a company started in 2004. Every day hundreds of millions of users post personal news, upload private pictures, and connect with friends they haven’t seen face to face for years. Facebook provides an amazing service. However, if Facebook were a country its users could not be called citizens, they would be subjects. Again and again, Facebook has shown that, outside of revolt, users have no direct say as to how this powerful new social space develops.

On September 15th, four idealistic programmers will launch a different form of social network, one that you control. They call their project Diaspora* and the goal is to give the ownership of your personal life back to you. It’s an idealistic mission, but one that is increasingly necessary.

Marshall Kirkpatrick, in a January 2010 article, points out the drastic turn Facebook’s privacy stance has taken in just a few years. In 2008, Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg said that a user’s control over privacy was “the vector around which Facebook operates." Flash forward just two years and he claims that changing social norms demand that Facebook open your information up to the world.

When I got started in my dorm room at Harvard, the question a lot of people asked was ‘why would I want to put any information on the Internet at all? Why would I want to have a website?’ And then in the last 5 or 6 years, blogging has taken off in a huge way and all these different services that have people sharing all this information. People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that has evolved over time. We view it as our role in the system to constantly be innovating and be updating what our system is to reflect what the current social norms are. A lot of companies would be trapped by the conventions and their legacies of what they've built, doing a privacy change - doing a privacy change for 350 million users is not the kind of thing that a lot of companies would do. But we viewed that as a really important thing, to always keep a beginner's mind and what would we do if we were starting the company now and we decided that these would be the social norms now and we just went for it. -Mark Zuckerberg (emphasis added)

I agree that privacy norms are changing. Actually, I’m a big fan of social transparency. It's obvious that a certain segment of society is more and more comfortable with sharing the intimate details of their lives. That’s no reason for Facebook to force openness on all its users. It would be just as possible to give users complete control over their information and allow them to choose their own personal privacy norms. Unfortunately, under the my way or the highway system on Facebook, users have to accept what’s given to them. Diaspora doesn’t work like that. The beauty of Diaspora’s approach is how much power is given to the users. So much power, in fact, that Diaspora participants shouldn't be called users. They should be called owners.

Diaspora’s key innovation is the removal of the middle man. As one of the founder’s said during an initial pitch for funding, “in real life we talk to each other, we don’t have to hand our messages to a hub, and have them hand it to our friends.” Cutting out the hub allows you to retain control over your information. At the same time, all your information is encrypted, guaranteeing that only the people you want to share with will gain access to your personal life. Be as open or as private as you like, the point is, you have the choice.

Diaspora has some major hurdles to overcome. They avoid the middle man by allowing any participant to create their own server. I’m confident in predicting that most users won’t want to run their own servers...or even know what that means. To address this, the Diaspora team is planning on offering a Wordpress-like service for those who want to get started with a minimum of fuss. Also, their promises of an intuitive user interface would have to be dead-on. People use online services precisely to avoid the hassle of running their own system. Diaspora needs to do all the heavy lifting behind the scenes or it won’t appeal to a mass audience. Then there’s Facebook itself. As I said, it’s the third largest country in the world. Getting its subjects to defect is quite an undertaking.

Still, I predict a slow, successful rise for Diaspora. September 15th will not prove to be another unveiling of the Segway. Instead it will be Android versus iPhone. Diaspora is creating an alternative social environment, one where personal freedom and ground-up innovation is the rule. On April 24th, 2010, four young programmers asked web users to donate ten thousand dollars so they could begin working on a dream project. In a little over a month, they received more than $200,000. People understand that their digital lives are still their own lives and they want to retain control. In just a few weeks, a new environment will start growing that can allow them to do just that.