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Facebook faces a Diaspora


Ever since Facebook deployed their ‘instant personalisation’ tools (ie putting a ‘Like’ button on pretty much everything online), the backlash against the resulting privacy losses has been loud and clear; Facebook look to be going into PR damage control, as Read Write Web notes, they’re circling the wagons.  Despite providing Elliot Schrage, vice president for public policy at Facebook, a platform to directly engage with public concerns about Facebook earlier this week, the New York Times has seemingly turned on the social networking goliath today.  First off the ranks, their article ‘Price of Facebook Privacy? Start Clicking’ does a really good job at showing the huge problems with Facebook’s privacy settings, from the privacy policies massive (and growing) length, to a brilliant (and dumbfounding) infographic which illustrates the more than 170 privacy options users need to navigate and understand to have any ownership of your privacy on Facebook.

At the same time, the New York Times are asking ‘Is There Life After Facebook?’, in which they talk about the problems of social media evangelists who feel Facebook has crossed a line, and want to delete their own profiles. Yet the strongest critique of Facebook’s recent changes comes from the showcase ‘Four Nerds and a Cry to Arms Against Facebook’ which introduces the founders of Diaspora, a yet-to-be-released social network which will attempt to replicate the social elements of Facebook while providing clear privacy controls using an open-source framework. While it’s far too early to judge whether Diaspora will be successful, the fact that they’ve already raised more than $US60,000 via Kickstarter (with pledges from more than 1700 people!) shows that a lot of people are looking for a change.

At first glance, Diaspora’s aims might seem a little utopian (and thus technically quite hard to achieve):

Diaspora aims to be a distributed network, where totally separate computers connect to each other directly, will let us connect without surrendering our privacy. We call these computers ‘seeds’. A seed is owned by you, hosted by you, or on a rented server. Once it has been set up, the seed will aggregate all of your information: your facebook profile, tweets, anything. We are designing an easily extendable plugin framework for Diaspora, so that whenever newfangled content gets invented, it will be automagically integrated into every seed.

Now that you have your information in your seed, it will connect to every service you used to have for you. For example, your seed will keep pulling tweets and you will still be able to see your Facebook newsfeed. In fact, Diaspora will make those services better! Upload an image to Flickr and your seed can automatically generate a tweet from the caption and link. Social networking will just get better when you have control over your data.

A seed will not just be all your existing networks put together, though. Decentralizing lets us reconstruct our “social graphs” so that they belong to us. Our real social lives do not have central managers, and our virtual lives do not need them. Friend another seed and the two of you can synchronize over a direct and secure connection instead of through a superfluous hub. Encryption (privacy nerds: we’re using GPG) will ensure that no matter what kind of content is being transferred, you can share privately. Eventually, today’s hubs could be almost entirely replaced by a decentralized network of truly personal websites.

If Diaspora tells us anything, it’s that Facebook’s dominance is under threat, and the next Mark Zuckerberg (or Zuckerbergs in Diaspora’s case) might start with firmer principles in place. Privacy is one of the great bugbears of social media, we want to share, but we want at least a modicum of control over that.  Facebook might roll back some of its worst ‘personalisation’ changes of recent weeks, but even then, many people have lost the will to trust Facebook; that loss might be their most expensive mistake ever.