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Privacy & Data

Back to the Future: First Thoughts on Diaspora

If you're reading Policy Beta, the odds are good that you know about Diaspora. Started in response to growing concerns about privacy on today's dominant social networks, the Diaspora project collected an unprecedented $200,000 of support from concerned Internet users. So after all the media attention and donations, is Diaspora worth it? Read on, dear reader – be aware that this is a pre-alpha version of Diaspora, however, so things are still rather rough.

Back to the Future

Diaspora has some simple, but very clever ideas about how to reconcile online anonymity with social networks.  With the advent of modern social networks, online handles, such as "hoochiemama1944" or "j3ffkisH4X0r," began to dissipate in favor of real names. How are people supposed to find you online, after all? Then, of course, the privacy issues began to spring up. Sharing information is what social networks are all about, but choosing who sees what information has been a tough issue to settle.

Diaspora handles this rather well. You set up an initial Diaspora account as you would any other social network, but once you're inside, you begin to manage your "aspects." Aspects can be defined as aspects of the self – how you like to appear to different groups of friends, family, or co-workers. When you receive a request from dear old dad, for instance, you can opt to put him in the Family aspect. When you post a status message to the Family aspect, dad can see it, but unless other users are also in your Family aspect, they wouldn't be able to see the message.  You can post a status message to your main feed that will display to all aspects as well. I'm a little concerned that the term "aspect" isn't quite intuitive enough, but it is a way around saying "multiple personalities." Right now you can post photos and status messages to these aspects, and that's most of the available functionality at this time.

What About Privacy Settings?

What about privacy settings? The other attractive "aspect" of Diaspora is the goal that users host their own Diaspora servers.  You have complete control over your data in every way. If you're unhappy with the amount of data you're sharing, simply shut down your server, and your information is gone across all networks. The aspects approach that Diaspora takes also protects you from unwanted sharing of data, but we can very likely expect more granular privacy controls in the Diaspora user-interface as time continues.


Diaspora is pre-alpha now, but has some solid ideas about how social network privacy should work. However, this seems to have been written to be a technical showcase project – not a mass market project. The tools involved in Diaspora are extremely difficult to set up, requiring a non-standard database, a programming language that takes a lot of configuring, and a cutting-edge server architecture I've never heard of. Granted, I do web administration by circumstance and not by trade, but Diaspora is undoubtedly tough to get going, and will absolutely not be able to run on most shared hosting. Diaspora's roadmap includes the goal of allowing users to set up the software on their home computers using installers, which I would love to see, but seems rather ambitious.

For those who don't set up Diaspora on their own, there are another problems. Diaspora will provide a place for users to sign up without setting up their own server, but that requires that the user trust Diaspora with their data, just as they have to take that leap of faith with modern social networks. Ideally, they know a tech-savvy friend who will host their instance, or help them get one started.


Today's social networks should be paying close attention to Diaspora. It may not be the Great Privacy Hope right now, but the Diaspora team and the online community will continue to innovate in order to solve the more touchy problems affecting social networking. The "aspect" framework is a wonderful idea that allows users to enjoy the Internet as it used to be while maintaining a professional appearance. I look forward to seeing Diaspora continue to innovate and influence the social networking sector – if only so the next generation doesn't have to change their names.