Facebook Foe Diaspora Releases Source Code … Now What?

The team that created Diaspora, the open source social network launched earlier this year to take on Facebook, released their source code on Thursday, as promised.

“This is now a community project, and development is open to anyone with the technical expertise who shares the vision of a social network that puts users in control,” reads a note on the site written by the creators. “Getting the source into the hands of developers is our first experiment in making a simple and functional tool for contextual sharing.”

The team behind Diaspora plans to add several features for the social network’s Alpha release, scheduled for October.

Diaspora was launched in April amid angst over Facebook’s issues with privacy. Now that those issues have died down somewhat and Facebook has half a billion users, is there any place for competition, even if it’s open source? And how would that competition work?

Traveling With Diaspora

Diaspora currently lets users share status messages and photos privately and in near real time with friends, befriend people across the Internet, manage their networks of friends and upload photos and albums. All traffic except photos is signed and encrypted. That security may be extended to photos later, the Diaspora team hinted.

For the Alpha release, scheduled for October, the team is working on integration with Facebook, internationalization and data portability.

As with all new software, there are glitches, and the team has invited users to help with sorting out these flaws.

“We know there are security holes and bugs, and your data is not yet fully exportable,” the team wrote. “If you do find something, be sure to log it in our bugtracker, and we would love screenshots and browser info.”

The team behind Diaspora consists of Daniel Grippi, Maxwell Salzberg, Raphael Sofaer and Ilya Zhitomirsky.

Got the Source Code, Now What to Do With It?

It’s not clear what releasing the source code will do for Diaspora or for social networking in general. Diaspora is based on a distributed networking model in which members’ computers connect to each other directly over the Internet. These computers are known as “seeds” and will be owned by their users, not the network. “Seeds” will aggregate information from Facebook, Twitter and other social networks.

What can developers do with the source code, now that it’s been released?

“They can help all of the remaining avid Linux fans find each other and happiness,” Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group, told LinuxInsider.

However, external forces may relegate Diaspora to the role of an interesting project.

“Open source should be an advantage, but it hasn’t worked that way in user-facing products largely because the technical folks end up doing all the messaging and bore potential users half to death,” Enderle opined. “Given that programmers by nature aren’t really that social, the audience may be relatively small,” he added.

“What’s the central value proposition?” asked Greg Sterling, founding principal of Sterling Market Intelligence. “The main problem is that there are no users; it’s a party that no one wants to attend until everybody’s there,” he told LinuxInsider.

“I don’t know what developers can do with the source code, based on my knowledge,” Jia Wu, an analyst at Strategy Analytics said. “It appears that their open source social network attempts to solve the privacy issue which Facebook has been heavily criticized for rather than being a fundamental innovation in the social networking space.”

Not the Only Fish in the Sea

It’s not as if Diaspora is the first open source social network in the field; several others exist, including the Appleseed project.

Like Diaspora, it’s an open source distributed and decentralized social network that’s still under development. However, it’s well ahead of Diaspora — the source code has been available since 2005, and lead Appleseed developer Michael Chisari released version 0.7.6 earlier this month.

“Diaspora has been very good at media relations and has promoted their project as if it were the only one of its kind,” Chisari told LinuxInsider.

Appleseed is a social framework that provides developers the basic tools — an extendable MVC model and distributed protocols — to build out social components, and Diaspora “is more of a single-purpose application, meant to recreate Facebook’s features in a distributed fashion,” Chisari said. Appleseed’s architecture lets it “do a lot more, even things that nobody has imagined yet,” he pointed out.

MVC, or Model-View-Controller, is a software architectural pattern used in software engineering. It isolates domain logic, which is the application logic for the user, from the user interface (UI). This lets developers develop, test and maintain the domain logic and the UI independently.

Although Diaspora’s blog has contact links, they are dead and its development team could not be contacted for comment.

Can Diaspora Work?

Diaspora’s UI is very similar to that of Facebook, although its approach is diametrically opposed to that of the social networking giant. Will it be able to take off, or will it still remain an interesting project?

“I think Diaspora is a long shot to displace Facebook for the same reason Linux struggles to displace Windows — it’s tough to convince large numbers of consumers to change their behavior, even if what you have is better,” Carl Howe, director of anywhere consumer research at the Yankee Group, told LinuxInsider.

“Facebook has managed to grow its user base rapidly despite the lingering privacy concerns about its service,” Strategy Analytics’ Wu said. “So I don’t believe Diaspora’s focus on privacy will make it a formidable player in the market.”

“Much like Facebook took the momentum from MySpace, Diaspora could challenge Facebook, but to do so it would need stronger marketing and a tighter focus on users,” Enderle pointed out. “Users really want to hear about what a service does for them and not how it does it,” he added.

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