It’s impossible to grasp the consequences or outcomes of new technology, especially when that technology is developed by a twenty-something hacker.
The Diaspora founders. Image: Gabriela Hasbun.
This article has been corrected.
It's impossible to grasp the consequences or outcomes of new technology, especially when that technology is developed by a twenty-something hacker.
That much was already clear in January 2010, when Mark Zuckerberg told TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington that Facebook isn't just a place to connect with your friends. It was a place to be more public than ever before. "People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that has evolved over time," he said. "But we viewed that as a really important thing, to always keep a beginner's mind and what would we do if we were starting the company now and we decided that these would be the social norms now and we just went for it."
Zuckerberg wasn't alone. "If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place," Google CEO Eric Schmidt said a month earlier on his blog, just a year after news about his own personal life – a breakup with a mistress – sparked concerns among shareholders.
Whether or not large companies should be deciding what's socially appropriate for their users, the line between meeting a new social standard and actually creating one is becoming increasingly harder to notice. To expand its user base and ad revenue Facebook slowly chipped away at user protections with its redesigns, coaxing users to share more and more, more often. The steady stream of tweaks was part of the Zuckerberg ethos, per his maxim that graces many real life walls in Menlo Park: "Always be shipping." But it also reflected Facebook's ultimate mandate: to make ad dollars with user data.
Since it launched, as Facebook made tweaks to privacy settings – with the presumption that privacy standards were changing – users were largely kept out of the loop, learning of privacy abuses after the fact. They were like the proverbial frog in the pot of water, slowly coming to a boil. The frog jumps out if the heat's turned up too fast. But if it's turned up gradually, the frog never notices, and stays in the water until it boils. Except the anecdote is fallacious. Most of the time, the frog notices.
The box and the boys
In February of 2010, at the height of Facebook's run-in with the public's trust, a law professor named Eben Moglen delivered a public lecture at NYU titled "Freedom in the Cloud." "The human race has susceptibility to harm, but Mr. Zuckerberg has attained an unenviable record: he has done more harm to the human race than anybody else his age," Moglen declared, and outlined the dubious contract the connected world was entering into with Facebook. "Namely, 'I will give you free web hosting and some PHP doodads and you get spying for free all the time.' And it works. That's the sad part, it works."
As chairman of the Software Freedom Law Center in New York, Moglen was already known as an impresario of digital rights and liberties, an aggressive critic of code that compromised users, the sort of crusader who might even chastise you for keeping your Facebook account. And Moglen saw a deep flaw in Facebook's centralized structure. Counter to the principles of the world wide web on which it was built – a distributed network started by a public institution and owned by no one – Facebook tilted the balance of power far away from the individual members that gave the social network any real meaning.
The human race has susceptibility to harm, but Mr. Zuckerberg has attained an unenviable record: he has done more harm to the human race than anybody else his age. – Eben Moglen
"Everything we know about technology tells us that the current forms of social network communication, despite their enormous current value for politics, are also intensely dangerous to use," Moglen told the Times last year, inspired by the events of the Arab Spring. "They are too centralized; they are too vulnerable to state retaliation and control."
"It is not hard, when everybody is just in one big database controlled by Mr. Zuckerberg, to decapitate a revolution by sending an order to Mr. Zuckerberg that he cannot afford to refuse," Moglen said.
It's high time we overthrew our network overlords, Moglen declared, and called his fellow Facebook skeptics to arms. "I'm not suggesting it should be illegal. It should be obsolete," he rallied. "We're technologists. We should fix it."
He already had a solution too: a personal server running a free software operating system, with free applications designed to create and preserve personal privacy. He called it the "Freedom Box," and with it, users could theoretically communicate directly with each other using peer-to-peer technology, circumventing the control of dictatorial data middlemen. His initiative offered a philosophical alternative to the problem of data possession: what if instead of volunteering our information to others — keeping our personal emails and beach photos and sex diaries on their servers — we simply kept those things on our own machines? This is how Moglen described it that night:
What do we need? We need a really good web server you can put in your pocket and plug in any place. In other words, it shouldn't be any larger than the charger for your cell phone and you should be able to plug it into any power jack in the world and any wire near it or sync it up to any Wi-Fi router that happens to be in its neighborhood. It should have a couple of USB ports that attach it to things. It should know how to bring itself up. It should know how to start its web server, how to collect all your stuff out of the social networking places where you've got it. It should know how to send an encrypted backup of everything to your friends' servers. It should know how to microblog. It should know how to make some noise that's like tweet but not going to infringe anybody's trademark.
In other words, it should know how to be you …oh excuse me, I need to use a dangerous word – avatar – in a free net that works for you and keeps the logs. You can always tell what's happening in your server and if anybody wants to know what's happening in your server they can get a search warrant.
It was more than a critique, it was a call for revolution, driven by freely distributed open source software. "Mr. Zuckerberg richly deserves bankruptcy," he concluded. "Let's give it to him. For free."
Sitting in the audience were three friends, undergraduates at NYU's Courant Institute for Computer Science, who first met during late-night tinkering sessions with a MakerBot in the school's programming club. Max Salzberg, 23, was the pragmatist, the group's natural leader; Dan Grippi, 21, was the dude, the doer who answered to nobody. Ilya Zhitomirskiy, 20. a sophomore, was the son of a proud family of Russian mathematicians, an idealist with a serious crush on privacy. And Raphael Sofaer, 19, the youngest, who couldn't make the lecture. His older brother Mike, a software engineer, was visiting from San Francisco, and in the days that followed, watched the four undergrads rave about its implications. "There was a feeling like 'we could do anything,' " Mike told New York Magazine.
The idea was simple. Build a decentralized, open source version of Facebook for the Freedom Box. Own your data. Own your social network. No Mark Zuckerberg. No need for real names. Just the people. Hoping to raise some funds for what was supposed to be a summer distraction, the team posted their idea on then little-known microfinance site, Kickstarter, with an unfussy target of $10,000. They called it Diaspora*, which fit the project's decentralizing aims nicely. From the Greek διασπορά, "scattering, dispersion," it's "the movement, migration, or scattering of people away from an established or ancestral homeland" or "people dispersed by whatever cause to more than one location."
By then, Facebook hate had reached a fever pitch, following a string of controversial privacy updates. Diaspora – "the privacy aware, personally controlled, do-it-all distributed open source social network," as described on their Kickstarter page – offered what seemed like the perfect antidote to Zuckerbergian tyranny. The New York Times quickly got wind. Tired of being bullied, technologists rallied behind the burgeoning startup spectacle, transforming what began as a fun project into a political movement. Before a single line of code had been written, Diaspora was a sensation. Its anti establishment rallying cry and garage hacker ethos earned it kudos from across an Internet eager for signs of life among a generation grown addicted to status updates.
"For some strange reason, everyone just agreed with this whole privacy thing," Dan said at the time. "Facebook Killer!" was the battle cry heard around the 'net, a real-life story of David versus Goliath. Powerful technology investors like Fred Wilson contributed to the cause. Al Gore phoned in to let the boys know that they were fighting the good fight. Even Zuckerberg, then in the throes of one wave of bad PR over privacy, committed a respectable sum, in a move as ironic as it was ridiculous. "I think it is a cool idea," he said. The story, like many others, spread across – where else? – Facebook.
But while Facebook embodied a tangible opponent, Ilya and Dan and Max and Raphael were really waging a war on the history and future of technology. "Diaspora is trying to destroy the idea that one network can be totally dominant," Rafi said. Nice guys though they were, the Diaspora boys even then carried an undeniable punk swagger, which fit their mission perfectly. Few noticed the message inscribed on the blackboard behind Ilya, on page 19 in the May 11, 2010 edition of the Times, but it didn't take an eagle-eyed coder fanboy to notice the nerds talking dirty in UNIX: "TOUCH GREP UNZIP MOUNT FSCK FSCK FSCK UNMOUNT," it read. (The Times subsequently cropped the photo on its website.) Suddenly, the prospect of bursting free of the shackles of network enslavement, of reclaiming the future of the Internet from Silicon Valley, quickly seemed as real as their draw from Kickstarter: 6,479 people had donated $200,641.
At a Kickstarter party in May 2010, Motherboard met a shy Ilya near the fridge, pouring something into a red cup. He was enthusiastic, if guarded, about the group's next steps: the four would be moving out to San Francisco for the summer. Their home would be Pivotal Labs in San Francisco, where Rafi's brother was a developer, and where they were offered free office space and development support. It sounded like the ultimate summer project, the kind of thing that an indie band does when it decamps to a farmhouse to record the new record, the sort of thing Mark Zuckerberg did the summer after sophomore year. But it wasn't exactly the same.
Network the free
The distributed, democratic model sounds great on paper. On the Internet and in other places, however, it's an ideal that also seems to go against our tendencies. Freedom and competition may be baked into our national code, but history indicates that societies are easily seduced by the ease that comes with living in a controlled system, so long as it's comfortable and predictable enough. Indeed, since the birth of the information age, argues Tim Wu, a recent F.T.C. advisor and a law professor who propagated the idea of "net neutrality" – of keeping the Internet's pipes free of top-down restrictions – we've readily sacrificed freedom for something far more seductive and perhaps, easily recognizable: convenience.
"Apart from brief periods of openness created by new inventions or antitrust breakups, every medium, starting with the telegraph, has eventually proved to be a case study in monopoly," Wu has written, pointing out that many of those firms survive, including AT&T, Paramount and NBC.
Industries that depend upon networks, Wu argues, tend to be subject to the domination of whichever company becomes more valuable to each user as the number of users rises. "Such networks have a natural tendency to grow, and that growth leads to dominance," he wrote. "That was the key to Western Union's telegraph monopoly in the 19th century and to the telephone monopoly of its successor, AT&T. The Bell lines simply reached more people than anyone else's, so ever more customers came to depend on them in a feedback loop of expanding market share. The more customers they reached, the more impervious the firm became to challengers."
With networks, "size brings convenience," says Wu, and the effect is only more ferocious with information monopolies. "When the people who move stuff are also the people who own the content," he told Motherboard in 2010, "you have an inherent conflict of interest. This means an inherent possibility for censorship, which is very dangerous."
A prime example is Apple, and its notoriously closed ecosystem. Its beautiful line of products integrate seamlessly but chain users to an ecosystem tightly regulated by the company. Even modest tasks, like replacing a battery, now mean trips to the Genius Bar for most people (others use iFixit). When it's broken, the Geniuses aren't capable of fixing your laptop: they send it all the way to the other side of the world to get refurbished, or they trash it and offer you a new one. The integration and control of its hardware and software is a compromise in pursuit of Apple's singular vision, one not to be tampered with by mere mortals.
"Steve Jobs builds incredible products," Wu said of the former Apple chief before his death. "But then on the other hand, you have to surrender completely to his control on some level. It's like fine dining: "When you go to a restaurant, you essentially surrender to the chef and say 'make a good meal,' and he's fabulous. But you are definitely making a deal where you are surrendering some of your freedom."
- See our interview with Tim Wu.
Not a fan of spicy food? Too bad. Hate Timeline? Deal with it. Don't like this new map? Sorry, pal, try downloading something else. The dictatorial ethos is anathema to Apple's humble hacker beginnings, argues Wu, who compares Jobs to AT&T's original president Theodore Vail. Although from the outset a genuine telephone lover, Vale soon became enamored with crushing the competition. By pushing his integrated approach, he created an empire that spanned seven decades. This is the depressing Matrix-like paradox of technological progression. Even as each new discovery empowers us, we also risk a kind of slavish attachment, inertia and dependence. In fact, nothing short of government intervention stops the beast of disruption from mutating into something ugly. And even by then, usually, the effects have already been felt.
"Does Facebook start to copy Google, or does it start to copy Apple? We'll be in a very different future." – Tim Wu
If you're living now, the future depends upon the path that Facebook chooses for you. "Does Facebook start to copy Google," which advocates open alternatives to the offerings of austere Apple, "or does it start to copy Apple?" If Facebook picks Apple? Says Wu: "We'll be in a very different future."
Many signs already point in this direction, from the company's various privacy mishaps to the platform's agreements with advertisers. Facebook calls the shots and users play by their rules. "The criticism [of CEOs like Zuckerberg] is that they're overly Machiavellian and don't care about people," a former Facebook executive fired by Mark Zuckerberg told Henry Blodget earlier this year. "But this is really what is required to build a long-term sustainable business."
This growing discontent over Silicon Valley's dubious terms of service drove support for movements like Moglen's, and eventually for Diaspora's. Fans scrambled to download and sign up for the alpha release in November 2010. The network was made up of pods, nodes each owned by an individual or institution that made the larger network truly decentralized. Another key feature was Diaspora's design as a federated network, a kind of "social aggregator" that allowed updates and content to be imported from Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter and dozens of other niche social networks. That kind of interoperability would allow the network to avoid the prying eyes of a Facebook or a Google, while still lowering the barrier to entry, and drawing in more people.
And yet, the battle may have been lost before it even began. Beyond the difficulty of actually executing a project of this scope and magnitude, the team of four young kids with little real-world programming experience found themselves crushed under the weight of expectation. Even before they had tried to produce an actual product, bloggers, technologists and open-source geeks everywhere were already looking to them to save the world from tyranny and oppression. Not surprisingly, the first release, on September 15, 2010 was a public disaster, mainly for its bugs and security holes. Former fans mockingly dismissed it as "swiss cheese."
Deeply affected yet undeterred, the team plowed on, and around Thanksgiving, released a "pre-alpha" version of the site. Over the next few months, they'd slowly put together what appeared to be a working, open-source federated clone of Facebook. "There's something deeper than making money off stuff," Ilya Zhitomiriskiy told New York Magazine around that time. "Being a part of creating stuff for the universe is awesome."
But the universe was quickly expanding.
After years of social media experiments that left a cemetery of failed projects behind, Google could no longer ignore the growing threat of Zuckerberg. By early 2011, ex-Googler James Whittaker wrote in a farewell blog post, Google's own social network had became the top priority. The motives smacked of desperate, imperial zeal.
Google could still put ads in front of more people than Facebook, but Facebook knows so much more about those people. Advertisers and publishers cherish this kind of personal information, so much so that they are willing to put the Facebook brand before their own. Exhibit A: www.facebook.com/nike, a company with the power and clout of Nike putting their own brand after Facebook's? No company has ever done that for Google, and Google took it personally.
The company reinstated founder Larry Page to right the ship, and from the beginning, it was clear he had Facebook firmly in its sights. Social became state-owned, a corporate mandate called Google+. It was an ominous name invoking the feeling that Google alone wasn't enough. Search had to be social. Android had to be social. YouTube, once joyfully autonomous, had to be … well, you get the point. Even worse was that innovation had to be social. Ideas that failed to put Google+ at the center of the universe were a distraction. "The Google I was passionate about was a technology company that empowered its employees to innovate," wrote Whittaker in his kiss-off. "The Google I left was an advertising company with a single corporate-mandated focus."
With the release of Google+ in June, Diaspora suddenly faced a new problem: irrelevance. $200,000 looks fairly insignificant next to Google's billions. Moreover, the search giant's new site also promised to give users more control of their data while seemingly cribbing some of Diaspora's key features. Google was "drinking Diaspora's milkshake," wrote ReadWriteWeb.
Outwardly, the team tried to spin it as a sign of their growing influence. "We're proud that Google+ imitated one of our core features, aspects, with their circles," the team wrote on their blog. "We're making a difference already." Behind the scenes, it was a disaster. Diaspora, which had incorporated as a class-C corporation, was already running out of money. The four founders had opted to rent individual apartments so they didn't "kill each other." With VC interest waning, their options were dwindling.
But perhaps most tellingly, Google+'s subsequent failure to make a real dent in Facebook's empire sparked a far more dire realization. Maybe people didn't want a Facebook Killer after all.
The writing was on the wall, and now the founders knew it. That summer, after all the money had been spent, Rafi returned to New York to finish school. Soon after, one of the team's key members, Yosem Companys, abruptly quit, citing internal strife. Around that time, PayPal froze Diaspora's accounts without warning, cutting them off from much needed donations — the team had gone to the community, hat in hand in October. By November, they were struggling to stay afloat.
On the 7th, the Wall Street Journal asked "Whatever Happened To Diaspora The Facebook Killer?" Five days later, in the late evening of Saturday, November 12th, the San Francisco medical examiner was standing over the body of Ilya Zhitomirskiy.
"I strongly believe that if Ilya did not start this project and stayed in school, he would be well and alive today." his mother said. Ilya had always been a believer, immersing himself in tech liberation culture and frequented local hackerspaces. "He had a choice between graduate school and this project, and he chose to do the project because he wanted to do something with his time that would make freedom," Moglen told the Times after his death. Ilya seemed to understand the gravity of his opportunity, and he took its failures to heart. Just two months after telling New York Magazine that Disapora was a labor of love, he would leave the team amidst a series of conflicts within the camp, and fly home to Pennsylvania, weeks before the big "pre-alpha" release. Ilya would return around Thanksgiving 2010, but only after his mother begged Max over the phone to take him back.
In the year that followed, the company struggled, as most startups do, with unmet expectations. With the original $200,000 gone and venture capital interest waning, tensions ran high, according to people close to the situation. Suspicions rose. After Rafi returned to NYU that summer, Dan and Ilya contemplated leaving while Max strategized about how to best continue the project with new partners. On October 3, they announced their plans at a heated board meeting. Relations remained cold through the following month. On November 12th, a day after 11/11/11, a date significant to Ilya for its numerical beauty – he was found dead.
"Hardly anyone had even a clue that Ilya was depressed, let alone suicidal," wrote Mitch Altman, a veteran hardware hacker who knew Ilya through Noisebridge, the San Francisco hackerspace he co-founded. "He was bubbly, cheerful, excited about all the way cool projects he was implementing, as well as the ones he had thought, and would think of."
The speculation on Hacker News in the days after his death pointed to the pressures of running a hot new startup, one that would require, given its potential, as much fortitude and virtuosity as can be found in the cutthroat, hype-happy world of a TechCrunched Silicon Valley. Wrote one top commenter: "He's the Ian Curtis of technology."
"The founders of Diaspora were in a really unenviable position," wrote another user named DevX101. "They started off with a wave of national press as well as solid financial support from grassroot users. As time went on, it became increasingly clear that they would not be able to accomplish the goal they originally set out to do. They had failed. Publicly. This can be very devastating psychologically to someone who has always 'succeeded' in life.
"I'm not saying this was the case for Ilya, or had any part in his death, but I know for me it would have been hard to swallow. There are many silent founders out there that gave up everything for an unrealized dream in the path to startup success and it has a real toll on psyches. Others downplay the effects of disappointment. "Yes, I agree that being a startup founder is stressful. But it wasn't the stress of work that killed Ilya," Max countered in May. "He had his own issues. He was sick." Those close to Ilya say that privately, he struggled with depression.
"It didn't really hit me until I stopped by his place," continued DevX101. "The only sign that something had happened was a paper taped to a door saying, 'Party Cancelled.' It's a really choking feeling. I think I went there to know if it was true… to know what happened. As his death becomes more apparent, I don't care what happened. It's a huge loss. Ilya will be missed."
For some, he was the heart and soul of the project. "In the end, I'd really like to focus on Ilya's bright spots, and there were a lot of them," says one close friend. "He was a visionary, and a mathematician. He brought countless passionate people together, and was well-loved in the technology community. Ilya was really the light of Diaspora. And frankly, when he died, the project died."
In Silicon Valley, where college dropouts go on to become billionaires and takeover the world, a deadly myth propagates. "As long as you're over a certain threshold of intelligence, what matters most is determination," evangelizes Paul Graham, founder of the legendary startup incubator Y-Combinator, which would later back Diaspora in a last gasp effort to keep the project alive. It's a beautiful thought and fundamental to the American Dream. It's a delusion that drives starry-eyed youngsters to quit school and head West, living off ramen and moving into hostel communities, "not so different from crowded apartments that cater to immigrants." In Silicon Valley, they believe that if you do whatever it takes, eventually, you'll get there too. There, everyone is on the cusp of greatness. And if you haven't yet made it to the land of milk and honey, it's only because you aren't working hard enough. Or worse, you've given up.
Success, however, is never quite so straightforward, a layered concoction, equal parts good idea, perseverance and whole lot of serendipity. It's for this reason that many of the industry's biggest rock stars remain one hit wonders. Marc Andreessen has struggled to match the triumph of Netscape Navigator. Twitter co-founders Ev Williams and Biz Stone left their company a year ago to work on something called Obvious, but so far have only a single blog post to show for it. Then there's Sean Parker of Napster fame. After wiggling his way into Facebook, his latest celebrity-endorsed venture, the Chatroulette clone AirTime, has yet to take off, if it ever does. Even with their credibility, confidence and cash, repeating past success eludes Silicon Valley's finest.
Yet the myth propagates because survivor bias rules. Failure just isn't part of the vocabulary; startup honchos prefer terms like "pivot" over more straight-forward words for a coming-to-terms. It's not something winners acknowledge, nor is it something the media often reports. For every Mark Zuckerberg, there's thousands of also-rans, who had parties no one ever attended, obsolete before we ever knew they existed.
Then there's the issue of money. In the early stages of a tech startup, there are few measurable achievements and progress is abstract. At the height of Silicon Valley's second great tech bubble, new players defined themselves not by what they'd done, but how much money they raised. While raising capital is fundamental, too much too soon can be a death sentence. All that cash hangs like an albatross around your neck, explains Ben Kaufman, who just raised $68 million for his company, Quirky.
"In the eye of the public, and specifically the tech community, funding is thought to mean much more than it actually does," Kaufman writes. "The world views funding as a badge of honor. I view it as a scarlet letter." This is the age of Kickstarter, where you can earn press and raise millions on the back of just an idea, undermining the tech scene's supposed love affair with execution. It reinforces a false sense of success, Kaufman says, remembering the first time he raised his first $1 million at the age of nineteen. "My grandfather called me to congratulate me on building a successful company," Kaufman recalls. "We still hadn't done shit. We just got some dude to write a check." In other words, when the money is flowing, it's easy to feel like you've made it, before you've actually made it.
Though Diaspora's $200,000 now looks a pittance in hindsight, the number generated immense validation from the media, which essentially portrayed them as a serious contender before they'd even learned to fight. "Part of the problem was the massive media spotlight," said one Diaspora insider who wanted to speak anonymously. "If they hadn't gotten the attention, none of this would have happened. They would have been more humble."
The make over
In spite of tragedy, the dream lived on, as the surviving members deftly leveraged the renewed publicity into the announcement of a fresh beta release. The project's future, however, remained in doubt.
Part of the problem could be the concept of peer-to-peer social networking itself. The concept of p2p first found its sea legs in 2001 with the release of BitTorrent, a protocol for peer-to-peer networking designed for massive amounts of distributed file-sharing. Instead of using a single source server to download a file, users join a "swarm" of hosts, downloading and uploading from numerous peers. By distributing and sharing bandwidth, the process reduces the load on any one server, making it easier to share large files. By some accounts, p2p file-sharing is now responsible for over half of all internet traffic.
"Facebook wants you to be stupid," said Bram Cohen, the creator of BitTorrent. That Facebook can have such control over our experience makes us comfortable. "Facebook clamps down on third party UIs [user interfaces] for a very basic reason," Cohen wrote in a Google+ post last July. "Those UIs will inevitably enable functionality which they don't want you to have, because it makes other people less comfortable using the system, and they've crippled the web UI in ways which make people on the whole happier."
Some of the benefits of living in a well-controlled digital city we take for granted. "Facebook doesn't want you to be able to see when people view your profile, for the simple reason that you don't want them to be able to know when you look at theirs," says Cohen. Without Facebook managing your data transactions, this sort of discrete browsing becomes impossible to guarantee. "It's a deep issue for projects like Diaspora."
Even basic tasks on Diaspora, like the crucial ability to delete a post you made on another person's wall, are complex technical problems that have no easy solution. "Obviously a client-side cache could simply keep all posts you see and remember them," says Cohen, "and any custom client would undoubtedly do that, but people like being able to delete posts, for a variety of good reasons, and want others to be forced to use their own frail human memory to get back the content. Likewise you can hide comments that you make from your main feed, so even people who are permissioned to see them will have a harder time noticing them, and relationship status changes, which are impossible to hide, can be 'hidden' in the sense that people aren't actively notified of them."
To Cohen, guru of p2p, Diaspora isn't just cumbersome: it's deeply flawed. And it's not something we really need at the moment. "There may be room for a form of social networking somewhere between email and Facebook," he wrote in an email. "It can't just be a verbatim copy of Facebook though, it would need some rethinking." And a big part of it is timing. All of this is relatively brand new and a solution like Facebook in its current form still has much to offer. "I think it's a good idea to wait for things to get more mature before trying to build something less agile."
Even Douglas Rushkoff, longtime proponent of digital distribution, isn't so sure that abandoning Facebook makes sense. After a conversation with Ethan Zuckerman, Rushkoff told Motherboard in "Free the Network", he began to think that "saying fuck this system, let's start our own Internet" didn't make as much sense as trying to use the existing tools in an effort to advance broader political and social ideas. To break the system down from the inside. Don't worry about starting your own medium, accept the one you've got, try to make it better, and keep moving. Using tools for things they weren't intended to be used for is the hacker way, after all. Zuckerman's idea is a distant cousin of the ones that have become Zuckerberg's mottos: not just the "keep shipping" one but "Move fast and break things."
I think it's a good idea to wait for things to get more mature before trying to build something less agile. – Bram Cohen
Realizing that building a modified Facebook was no longer enough, the team looked for ways to reinvent itself. Two and a half years after that fateful Kickstarter project, the Diaspora team had, by its own admission, grown up. With that came a renewed focus, and the search for a unique identity for the project. "We are refocusing around a new design metaphor," they wrote, hoping to channel the community's creative zest, promising to roll out updates in the months that followed. But even after being accepted into YCombinator's prestigious incubator program this past summer, staying focused and keeping shipping were adages that Diaspora continued to struggle with.
In June, I asked the team how they were doing. "We are working on some exciting new+related stuff, but its all in early stages for the next month or two," Max told me over email. "We are hunkered down until then!" I followed up, but never heard back.
The team would reveal its hand two months later with the release of a new project called Makr.io, a "collaborative Web remixing tool." In other words, not the game-changing distributed social network everyone was waiting for but a meme generator for the lolcat community. "Diaspora is in our blood," said Max, "but we're a little goofier than that," comments that left some of Diaspora's core community feeling a bit jealous. "The Diaspora devs are making love with Makr.io, their back turned on Diaspora," tweeted Kevin Kleinman, a long time supporter.
Some weeks later, the team quit the project for good, handing the unfinished mess to the community at large. "This is where we were headed since day one," Max told AllThingsD, vowing to support the platform's "thousands" of users from afar. The current user count stands at just under 400,000, slightly down from the 600,000 Business Week reported in 2011. Far from dead, the site seems to serve as some sort of nerd ghetto for European crypto hipsters. My stream is filled with a slew of public updates from the last few days, topped by a post by United Geekdom Of GNU/Linux, whose most recent contribution is a pic titled, "Why some People use Linux." But mostly, the feed is dominated by power users like Startdust and Apolonis Aphrodisia who post in Italian and French. Staying true to his word, Max popped in last week to discuss some back-end housekeeping. But criticism from the community has been vehement. Just over two years since its first release, Diaspora remains in alpha.
Next Big Something
However inevitable, Diaspora's demise arrives at a time when Moglen's darkest fears have come to bear and the need for a secure, privacy conscious way to connect with others has never been greater. In a post-Facebook world, many of the brands we've come to trust as the linchpins of a new era of democratic communication have turned their backs on such ideals in search of profits. And when the government increasingly beckons, firms like Google and Twitter are having a harder time saying no.
Google's latest transparency report revealed that the U.S. is now a leader in Web censorship, submitting 6,192 items to be removed across 187 requests, more than any other country and up 103 percent over the prior year. It's no different for Twitter whose frequent reluctance to cooperate with law enforcement didn't stop it from complying with most government requests: last year, it supplied some or all of the information requested 75 percent of the time. Earlier this year, the site acknowledged that it would begin censoring Tweets when governments asked it to do so.
We live in a world where the British Home Office wants to enact an unprecedented surveillance act known as the "Snooper's Charter," which is expected to be passed later this year. In Utah, the NSA builds a $2 billion data center that will, according to Wired, the agency intends to siphon "all forms of communication, including the complete contents of private emails, cell phone calls, and Google searches, as well as all sorts of personal data trails—parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases, and other digital 'pocket litter.'" It's a world where oppressive regimes like Bahrain monitor journalists and dissidents with legal spyware called FinSpy. Where proposed laws like SOPA, PIPA and CISPA have stoked new anxieties about Internet freedom. A world where Stuxnet is a household name. It's an age of cyberwarfare.
In August, the FTC finished settling its suit against Facebook over claims that it had repeatedly abused user data, "repeatedly allowing it to be shared and made public." "Facebook is obligated to keep the promises about privacy that it makes to its hundreds of millions of users," said Jon Leibowitz, Chairman of the FTC. "Facebook's innovation does not have to come at the expense of consumer privacy. The FTC action will ensure it will not."
Among the measures Facebook will take include subjecting itself to privacy audits every two years for two decades, giving customers "clear and prominent" warnings any time information is shared, and giving users the express consent for that information to be distributed.
Unlike a recent $22.5 million settlement with Google over its privacy policies, however, Facebook was not slapped with any fines, as it has not yet violated any agreements made with the F.T.C. Curiously, despite the massive privacy overhaul mandated by the F.T.C., Facebook denied any wrongdoing. In a brief statement last November after the settlement was announced, the company said that it "expressly denies the allegations set forth in the complaint," a statement the F.T.C. still considers to be part of the case record. (The F.T.C. is now reviewing policies that allow companies to deny wrongdoing in settlement cases.) Even as it settled, the company was, in effect, recused of any guilt.
Last week, the Financial Times reported that a newly uncovered deal between Facebook and the data firm Datalogix allows the site to track whether ads seen on Facebook lead users to buy those products in stores, which is highly attractive intelligence for advertisers. (Datalogix does this by buying consumer loyalty data from retailers, and tracks in-store purchases by matching email addresses in its database to email accounts used to set up Facebook profiles, along with other account registration information.)
Privacy advocates are having deja vu. "Facebook users had no idea of when the system was put in place, and more importantly, its consequences," said Jeff Chester, the executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, which, along with the Electronic Privacy Information Center, wrote a joint letter to the F.T.C. urging an investigation. "Under the FTC settlement, Facebook is supposed to make their practices transparent." The letter also noted that the process of opting out of the program – through a browser cookie – was "confusing and ineffective."
A Facebook spokesperson said the arrangement was comparable to others it holds, and points out that the personal data is anonymized. "We also do this through our partnerships with companies like Nielsen and comScore, and through our own advertising tool. We don't sell people's personal information, and individual user data is not shared between Facebook, Datalogix or advertisers." The program is part of Facebook's ongoing effort to perfect how advertisers reach users . "We kept hearing back [from marketers] that we needed to push further and help them do a better job," Brad Smallwood, Facebook's head of measurement and insights, told the Financial Times.
I feel like we've already succeeded in that we've brought awareness to the fact that there could be other ways of communicating on the Internet. —Ilya Zhitomirskiy
Naturally, calls for a federated network continue. "I don't know if Diaspora specifically will be the Next Big Thing in social networking, but I hope that social networking moves to a decentralized model within the next few years," Circumventor.com and Peacefire.org founder Bennett Haselton wrote on Slashdot last month. Then again, Slashdot is "news for nerds." It's hard to make fear cool. It's harder yet to make security convenient. And it's not that alternatives — projects like identi.ca and Appleseed — don't already exist, as Friendica creator Mike Macgirvin proudly and shamelessly reminded us in August. "Friendica WORKS today," he wrote in a blog post, "unlike similar projects which are still struggling at basic communications after two years, and after squandering huge amounts of money." It's just that no one bothers to use them.
So the challenges presented by Cohen and Wu and others persist. It's privacy's perplexing paradox, the fact that people don't like privacy violations, but rarely seem to care enough to do anything about it. Like a dull drone amid the noise, the effects of its erosion are hard to detect. It often creeps up on you, and by then, your data is already not your data. If you're on Facebook, you are, after all, voluntarily giving up personal information all the time.
Now that it must answer to its shareholders, Facebook's quest for new streams of revenue is more imperative than ever. Recent stumbles and widespread skepticism aside, the company will continue to mine a steadily growing cache of personal information, a data set like none other in history. And one whose value, some argue, is so valuable and marketable that rumors of its demise are grossly naive.
But if Diaspora has shown us anything, it's that people can care enough to have a say about privacy, when the time is right. It's thanks to movements like Diaspora that the public is growing more engaged with privacy issues. In a poll released this week by The Associated Press and the National Constitution Center, Americans said their biggest perceived privacy threat, at 37 percent, were social networking Web sites like Facebook and Twitter (close behind: unmanned drones, electronic banking, GPS/smartphone tracking and roadside cameras). Less than half, 47%, give Washington good marks on protecting the right to privacy, and 40% believe the government is doing a poor job protecting that right. As Diaspora struggled in the summer of 2011, Ilya ruminated that raising consciousness was half, if not all, of the battle. "I feel like we've already succeeded in that we've brought awareness to the fact that there could be other ways of communicating on the Internet," Ilya said months before his death. "We've brought Diaspora into the world."
As the Internet shifts to our pockets and everywhere else, it's right to be skeptical of those who promise to be the next big thing, no matter how big that thing is. What we do know is that the new new thing is always right around the corner. It probably won't be Diaspora. And it probably won't resemble Facebook. But it will probably be better. It will need to be, because it's our choice after all. These things are nothing without us.
And of course, the choice of the people that design software to begin with. Whatever succeeds Facebook, it won't be owned by Mark Zuckerberg, but it also might not be owned by the people. It might fall somewhere in between. And it will connect us in ways we've never connected before, change us in ways we have yet to comprehend, and produce a new paradigm of problems still impossible to foresee.
Until then, see you on Facebook.
See Motherboard's documentary "Free the Network"
Additional reporting by Alex Pasternack.
Correction: An earlier version of this story reported that Ilya passed away "weeks" after returning to the company. In fact, his death occurred nearly a year later. This has been fixed, with added detail. We regret the error.