August 28, 2012, 10:08 AM — Just over two years after their now-famous Kickstarter fundraiser that generated ten times the amount of funds they were seeking, the founders of Diaspora have announced they will shifting control of the project to the Diaspora community.
Diaspora is one of the flashy success stories of the social media age. Conceived by four NYU students as an open source, distributed answer to Facebook, the project received a lot of media and hacker attention in 2010, just as the apex of concern for Facebook's data privacy policies was being reached.
In a blog announcement to their community on Monday, Diaspora team members Daniel Grippi and Maxwell Salzberg announced their intent to release control of the project to that same community.
"Diaspora has grown into something more than just a project four guys started in their office at school. It is bigger than any one of us, the money we raised, or the code we have written. It has developed into something that people all over the world care about and are inspired by. We think the time is right to reflect this reality, and put our code where our hearts lie," they wrote.
Now, a move like this is typically seen as a welcome one by free and open source software advocates, but this time, there's a very sour edge to Diaspora's decision, much of it centered around that Kickstarter funding in the spring of 2010. The original fundraising goal of $10,000 was overwhelmingly surpassed, with the final figure coming in at over $200K. Suddenly, the expectations for success were much higher.
Thus, the passing of control of Diaspora to community is seen as more like throwing in the towel at this stage rather than a genuine effort of tap into free/open source development advantages.
But I am here to challenge that notion.
There were some goofs on the part of the project founders after the Kickstarter project, not the least of which was their decision to go almost completely dark within their own community as they toiled away on an early implementation of their distributed social network. This raised a lot of red flags, giving observers a bad feeling that the founders, money in hand, were enjoying their newfound largess instead of putting something together.
(Of course, if someone wants to define $200K split four ways in San Francisco as largess, I would happily laugh at them.)
Diaspora had some other execution problems: the early code releases that showed up were critically ripped apart, and when the first UI releases showed up in 2011, a year after the launch of the project, there were the inevitable comparisons made to the then-new Google Plus social platform.
And then there was the death of co-founder Ilya Zhitomirskiy in November 2011, a suicide that surely would have left the team reeling from the emotional blow. Was Zhitomirskiy's decision to take his own life a factor in this week's hand off to the community? Indirectly, at least, it was: their latest venture Makr.io was born in the days following their friend's death.
It is interesting how many people see this decision as the end of Diaspora. I have to call that assertion to question: they used to say the same thing about Netscape when AOL made its code available as open source, and Mozilla is chugging along now quite nicely.
Shifting to a community-run model is not the end of the world for software. It could be the end of the company that originally spawned the code, but free and open source software is usually about more than individuals and corporations.
The truth is, becoming an open source project is no guarantee that a project will live or die. But one thing is certain: the chances for Diaspora just got better now that it's under the care of many instead of few. The more people who can work with the code, the better the chance that a better implementation will be built that will deliver upon or even exceed the original promise of Diaspora.
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