Blow on a dandelion seedhead and a thousand plants may take root in every direction. The founders of Diaspora imagine, instead of dandelions (the weed is Diaspora’s logo) seeding a million servers. Together, that scattered infrastructure will form a new kind of social network—where users enjoy sharing, as on Facebook, but because their data storage is widely distributed, it will offer choice on where to keep their data. By scattering the data, Diaspora hopes to take advertisers’ data mining—tracking users’ behavior, friends and interests—and turn it into a consumer choice rather than a given.
The idea isn’t new, with concern widespread about online privacy, but no one before has had Diaspora’s success in running with it. It’s growing like a weed, going in less than a year from four excited undergrads to an amply funded San Francisco startup. Now, while the founders work away, the international open-source community is tinkering to improve Diaspora’s publicly available code.
It began in February 2010 when four Computer Science majors took to heart a speech at NYU by the activist and law professor Eben Moglen, director of the Software Freedom Law Center. With the Internet dominating so many lives, while enriching a few giant corporations, Moglen lambasted what he called the centralized “spying” built into e-mail, social networking, storage and mobile telephony. He called on techies to design a way back to the Net’s egalitarian roots in peer- to-peer architecture.
“We all knew, in our hearts, what he was saying,” says Diaspora cofounder Max Salzberg. In days, the four cofounders agreed that taking up some of Moglen’s challenge would be, at least, a fun pro- blem to explore. A month later, after “kicking it around in our minds” in marathon sessions in Room 311 Warren Weaver Hall on nights and week-ends, they began prototyping. In April, on the advice of Professor Evan Korth, they fundraised using Kickstarter, an online donation site for creative projects. They sought $10,000 to last a sum- mer but $200,000 poured in. They’d struck a powerful chord.
The four coded all summer and in September 2010, released a pre-apha for software developers. The alpha release followed in November. Now they’re fixing bugs, continuing development and planning the future: add-on features, more funding, doubling their staff from the original four. Moglen’s call to arms—data power to the people—still resonates, as does their University experience, says Salzberg: “NYU’s brilliant people and elite researchers really inspired us, to try hard to solve problems you thought were impossible.”