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Is Diaspora a real Facebook challenger, or simply flapping in the wind?

My good friend Jim recently sent me an invite to alpha test Diaspora, the social network that has been touted as the open-source alternative to Facebook and is being pitched at those who want more control over their content.  In particular, it aims to make sure that your information and posts are only ever shared with those you choose, and that you can stop third parties commercializing your photos etc when you choose.

To put the privacy issue in context, Facebook’s Terms have the following to say about the content you upload:

“Sharing Your Content and Information

You own all of the content and information you post on Facebook, and you can control how it is shared through your privacy and application settings. In addition:

  1. For content that is covered by intellectual property rights, like photos and videos (“IP content”), you specifically give us the following permission, subject to your privacy and application settings: you grant us a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content that you post on or in connection with Facebook (“IP License”). This IP License ends when you delete your IP content or your account unless your content has been shared with others, and they have not deleted it.
  2. When you delete IP content, it is deleted in a manner similar to emptying the recycle bin on a computer. However, you understand that removed content may persist in backup copies for a reasonable period of time (but will not be available to others).
  3. When you use an application, your content and information is shared with the application.  We require applications to respect your privacy, and your agreement with that application will control how the application can use, store, and transfer that content and information.  (To learn more about Platform, read our Privacy Policy and Platform Page.)
  4. When you publish content or information using the “everyone” setting, it means that you are allowing everyone, including people off of Facebook, to access and use that information, and to associate it with you (i.e., your name and profile picture).
  5. We always appreciate your feedback or other suggestions about Facebook, but you understand that we may use them without any obligation to compensate you for them (just as you have no obligation to offer them).”

The scope of this is unclear.  First, what is the difference between posting “on” and posting “in connection with” Facebook, in paragraph 1?  And if I share a photo with my friends, how do they “delete” it?  Because until every one of my friends has, Facebook retains its license to use and exploit it for any purpose.

Para 3 also highlights the big issue with any social network – once something is shared, it’s out of the box and to restrict its further sharing relies on an honor system.  Can you trust every “friend” and every application that can read your account?  Remember the story about FarmVille sharing user information without permission?  This risk isn’t something that Diaspora (or any other network, real or virtual) can eliminate, so it serves as a useful limitation on claims of privacy.

Finally, Facebook’s description of the “everyone” setting implies that posting with this setting gives everyone in the world a license to “use” your content (it is not clear whether “information” includes “content” in this part).  Read in connection with the deletion requirement of para 1, it seems that once content has been shared using the “everyone” setting Facebook’s license to use your content and to re-license it, for any purpose, can never come to an end, thereby making content owners’ rights much less valuable.


So, how does Diaspora compare?  I’ve been testing it for about two weeks now, but haven’t come to any firm conclusions yet.

To start with, I can’t find any terms and conditions to tell me what licenses they are taking of my content.  I also have to log in with either my Facebook, Google, Twitter or Get Satisfaction accounts to post a bug or change request to the Diaspora community.  That’s ironic.

Secondly, the “email address” given to you on sign-up (“username@joindiaspora.com” (it seems someone else owns diaspora.com)) doesn’t function as an email address.  The only way I found this out is because I wanted to test the address to see what would happen, since there don’t seem to be any email alerts provided by the network (meaning you’re likely to miss comments on anything outside your two or three most recent posts).

There are various other bugs which no doubt will be easily fixed, and the feature list will grow once the foundation is made secure.  I’m happy to ignore those who have written Diaspora off already, because it seems they have never software tested before.  I’m more concerned about how slow it is…

On the plus side, I like the “aspects” feature of Diaspora.  These function just like e-mail groups; you can add people to some or all of your groups and choose which groups you want to share a post or photo with.  You can also “reshare” posts, although that feature needs a bit of work.

Finally, though, the “Diaspora only supports modern browsers” statement above icons for Chrome, Firefox, Opera and Safari is childish and pointless.  It works fine with Internet Explorer, which is a good thing since that browser still accounts for upwards of 60% of all Internet users.

Will Diaspora compete with Facebook?  I’m not sure.  I really like the aspects feature, but, given that there’s very little to stop Facebook integrating a similar feature if it needs to (which, at present, seems unlikely), I think it more likely that Diaspora is fighting a losing battle.  Which is another reason why it’s probably not a great idea to make infantile jabs at potential purchasers like Microsoft.

If anyone would like to connect, you can find me at garethdickson@joindiaspora.com