Open-Source Facebook Alternative

This NYT piece profiles the people who are working on Diaspora, a would-be open-source alternative to Facebook.

As they describe it, the Diaspora* software will let users set up their own personal servers, called seeds, create their own hubs and fully control the information they share. Mr. Sofaer says that centralized networks like Facebook are not necessary. “In our real lives, we talk to each other,” he said. “We don’t need to hand our messages to a hub. What Facebook gives you as a user isn’t all that hard to do. All the little games, the little walls, the little chat, aren’t really rare things. The technology already exists.”

That makes a lot of sense to me. The idea we all needed to route our friendships through some private company has always seemed strange and disturbing; what value does Facebook add besides simply existing, supplying the server space and so on? James Kwak noted a few weeks ago that Facebook is crappy as software:

Facebook is just bad software. This manifests itself in various ways. The performance (speed of response) for many user actions is terrible. The user interface manages the improbable dual achievement of being both non-intuitive (it’s not obvious why the page is organized the way it is, nor how Facebook classifies different kinds of information, nor how to do rather simple things) and under-functional (you have to click and click and click to do certain things, like un-liking a fan page, leaving a group, or deleting an application).

And it’s worse than that. Last week, TechCrunch reported a “security hole” that allowed to see their friends’ live chats and pending friend requests. Now, you may think, “Windows has thousands of security holes — what’s one more?” But this isn’t a securities hole in the Windows sense, meaning a vulnerability that a malicious hacker might exploit. This is a flaw that Facebook inflicted on itself, all by itself, that was sitting there waiting for any ordinary user to find.

Then there’s the problem that Facebook marketing, and Facebook executives, are unable to explain clearly what exactly their software does. That could be studied vagueness in order to obfuscate. Or it could be that their data model, user model, and security model are so screwed up after several years of experimenting that they don’t actually know what is going on: they make changes to the software, cross their fingers, and use their customers as testers. I would bet on the latter.

I suppose at first Facebook had snob appeal, when only Ivy Leaguers could use it; since then it seems the company’s main “service” has been obfuscating who can see what you upload, though they are also trying to make their log-in a person’s master log-in across the internet. But you’d have to be crazy to associate everything you do on line with your Facebook profile, in my opinion.

In the NYT piece, the Diaspora guys credit this talk by Columbia University law professor Eben Moglen for inspiring them. It’s a bit tech-oriented, but worth reading if you are wondering if you should be concerned about online privacy. (Obviously you should be.) The key point is that we are disconnected from the logs made of our internet behavior:

So we built a network out of a communications architecture design for peering, which we defined in client-server style, which we then defined to be the disempowered client at the edge and the server in the middle. We aggregated processing and storage increasingly in the middle and we kept the logs — that is, info about the flows of info in the Net — in centralized places far from the human beings who controlled or thought they controlled the operation of the computers that increasingly dominated their lives. This was a recipe for disaster.

The logs are the product we make for who knows who, in exchange for the entertainment and self-fashioning opportunities the servers spit back out to us. WE may think what we give is nothing, but as Moglen explains, it can collect into a fairly telling picture of what we are about: “Their problem is all the stuff that’s the cruft, the data dandruff of life, that they don’t think of as secret in any way but which aggregates to stuff that they don’t want anybody to know.”

We increasingly manipulate and live in that data without owning it — our ideas and identities are shared back to us from the servers and we play with them, but then they go back to their real owners — currently that’s Facebook. Says Moglen: “The architecture of the Net put the logs in the wrong place. They put the logs where innocence would be tempted.” And Zuckerberg’s not that innocent to begin with. Moglen declares that “he has done more harm to the human race than anybody else his age.”