In what is quickly shaping up as the David versus Goliath fight to watch, four students from NYU's Courant Institute are looking to take on social networking behemoth Facebook with Diaspora – a distributed, open source social network. They aim to address the privacy concerns that has put Facebook under fire by giving users complete control of their details and content and who they share it with. Through the use of a personal web server called a Diaspora "seed", users will be able to securely share information, pictures, video and more.
To cut out the middleman, Diaspora will be a distributed network where separate computers connect to each other directly, instead of relying on a central hub to relay information. Since each computer - or "seed" - is owned and hosted by the user, they have total control over what information is shared and with whom. GPG encryption will also ensure that no matter what kind of content is being shared, it can be done so privately and securely. This is sure to appeal to Facebook users concerned about what Facebook does with the personal information stored on its servers.
And making the move to Disapora won't mean saying goodbye to all your Facebook friends because it will aggregate content from all your existing social networking services including Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. The Diaspora team says their software will actually make those services better as it will allow users greater control over their data. For example, a user's seed can be used to automatically generate a tweet from a caption and link when uploading an image to Flickr.
The students behind Diaspora think they have hit upon a good idea... and it seems they aren't the only ones. To make Diaspora a reality the team is raising money through the online fund-raising site, Kickstarter. Their initial goal was to raise US$10,000 in 39 days – a mark they reached in just 12 days. At the time of writing the total amount pledged stood at US$125,087 with 18 days still to go and was climbing by the minute. All four $2,000 plus pledges were sold, as were all five $1,000 pledges. The remainder was made of 39 backers pledging at least $350, 137 pledging $100 or more, 231 contributing $50 or more, 1,324 providing $25 or more, 564 coughing up $10 or more, and 671 contributing $5 or more.
The students now have more than enough money to chuck in their summer internships and spend three months totally focused on building Diaspora. Once they have produced the first solid iteration of Diaspora they will release the code as free software for anyone who wants to use it, forever.
To see some kind of return they also plan to provide a paid turnkey hosted service along the lines of Wordpress.com to make it easy for people who want to use Diaspora, but don't want to deal with the fuss of setting it up. Such users won't be locked in though. If someone decides they want to graduate to hosting their seed themselves they are free to do so and will be able to easily export their data and configuration.
If the level of interest and financial support Diaspora has attracted carries over to the end product then Facebook could well have reason to be worried. The Diaspora team plans to make the service available a few months after the end of summer and those interested in their progress can keep up to date via their website.
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