Is Diaspora a threat to Facebook?

I was speaking to a journalist recently about Diaspora, and they wanted to know – will Diaspora be the next Facebook?

I believe it won’t, and before I explain why, for those that aren’t familiar with Diaspora, here’s a quick recap:

Diaspora is an open source “social networking software” that was started by NYU students in February 2010 and gained attention after being listed on popular crowd-funding site Kickstarter in April 2010 – it raised more than $200,000 from supporters. The premise was pretty simple: create a social network software where you can be sure you have complete control over your privacy and your data.

So will Diaspora be the next Facebook? Not likely. Even Diaspora co-founder Maxwell Salzberg says, “Facebook is not what we are going after.”

Here’s why I think it won’t be a threat to Facebook – from a concept point of view:

  • Diaspora is a distributable software package, not a single website. Since Diaspora is open source software, that means that anyone can download and use it, and modify its code and redistribute it. There’s no need to sign up just in one place to use it, and therefore the mass of people replicating itself in the same quantity as Facebook is unlikely to occur.
  • The people that cared about the privacy issues on Facebook are a small percentage of its users. Unfortunately, the number of people genuinely concerned with any breaches in privacy and leaving Facebook is not enough to make a dent – Facebook’s growth continues to soar despite its privacy debacles. Facebook is learning from its mistakes, too – it’s providing more communication about changes as well as teaching users how to opt-in or opt-out of services. It will take significant breaches of trust for users to consider abandoning Facebook now.
  • Facebook is the new home page. For some users, asking them to move from Facebook is akin to asking them to switch email addresses, websites and phone numbers all in one – and with no obvious benefits. Facebook is their home new page, and changing that will result in isolating them unless their friends are using it, too.
  • People “know” Facebook and “know” Mark Zuckerberg – they don’t know Diaspora. With the release and success of the Social Network movie, though considered a fiction and not a real-life story of Facebook and its founder Mark Zuckerberg, the affinity between Facebook and its users has only been strengthened. After June 2010’s disastrous interview with CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Mark has worked hard on communicating more and becoming a press-worthy figurehead of the company, and it looks like it’s working. Who, on the other hand, is Diaspora? Alpha invites went out at the end of November, and very little has been communicated since on the Diaspora blog.
  • Open source communities traditionally grow organically from a devoted volunteer base, not starting with a capital injection. This perhaps is the most interesting point for me, as I work for a company whose business model rides on open source software: the community came well before the software-as-a-service and passion drove its development and features at the beginning. Has the capital injection Diaspora received really created a sustainable, passionate core development team? Before people jump ship from Facebook, they’ll want some evidence Diaspora is around to stay and that it has a future. Their code Roadmap hasn’t been updated since the end of October.
  • Good software takes time. Facebook has several years’ head-start in code and feature development when compared with Diaspora, not to mention hundreds of people dedicated full-time to developing it and marketing it. Diaspora’s small team can only do so much, and if they grow too fast, they might run into other problems with the project’s vision, code quality and investor pressure.
  • Facebook started with a niche, and grew outward. Facebook started with the Ivy League schools, and grew outward. MySpace started with eUniverse users and music lovers. It wasn’t lonely at the beginning. Diaspora doesn’t have a killer app or a niche it’s marketing to – thus is the beauty of open source, but it will also result in a lack of clear target for user migration.

Despite all of these reasons Diaspora won’t become the next Facebook, it in no way means it won’t be a success.

Here’s some reasons why I think it could be successful:

  • Independence rocks. Different from privacy and data ownership positive points, the ability to download and install the software anywhere will be its biggest strong point. It can give many niche networks a new, independent home they can control and support over the life of the network, without worrying about being “shut down,” as many Ning users saw in April 2010 when the service went to a paid-only service. I’m sure many niche networks could build very nice new homes for their purposes.
  • Development can go any which way. If the current core team doesn’t prove dedicated to the software, the good news is another group of developers can pick up where they left off. The project can fork – it can split off at any time and maybe that fork will become the next Facebook killer – that in itself is exciting.
  • It has many alpha/beta users and an interested support base to help it get better. With all the press the project has gotten, people are clamoring for invites and the level of usage for the early releases will help the software get better, faster, if the feedback is properly collected and managed.

I was lucky to get an invite to Diaspora while I was writing this article. My first impression is as I stated above: Lonely.

Here’s a few screenshots from my home page. Maybe things will liven up? 🙂

Sign up and filling out your profile – the open text box on Gender has gotten some attention and props from users. No word on if “it’s complicated” will come into play with the introduction of a relationship status, too.

What I “shared” with the world (public RSS is enabled on these updates & they are visible to people not signed up on Diaspora).

Managing aspects – you organize your contacts into “aspects” – this drag-and-drop approach is interesting but I think it will not scale when I’m managing hundreds of contacts. They start you with two aspects – Family & Work, and you can create and add as many aspects as you desire.

What I shared with all my aspects – essentially, all my contact groups. The aspect naming is awkward and I would vote for it to be the first thing to change.

That’s about it for now – a simple, clean interface with nothing new or groundbreaking, and a whole lot of  features missing we’ve become used to through our blogs and Facebook. I’ll be keeping my eye on Diaspora, though.

What are your thoughts?

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Director of Product Marketing @ HubSpot. Early hire @ Automattic / Founder World Nutella Day. MBA Alumni Advisory Board @ Santa Clara University.

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