Will the real anti-Facebook please stand up?

Ready for yet another social network? Diaspora hopes to battle Google+ for your attention -- and your privacy.

Remember Diaspora? No, not the forced movement of Jews out of ancient Judea. I’m talking about that geeky alternative to Facebook cooked up over the summer of 2010 by four NYU undergrads.

[Diaspora: An antidote for your Facebook privacy problems and Open-source social network Diaspora goes live]

These guys wanted to create a social network that let you share your thoughts, photos, yadda yadda without, ahem, constantly changing its rules to invade your privacy. (Paging Mark Zuckerberg to a White Discourtesy Telephone.) They chose the name “Diaspora” to represent the migration of unhappy Facebook users to their new site. (Or maybe just because they liked how it sounded after a couple of beers.)

Diaspora has been in public Alpha since last fall (I’ll bet you missed that – I did), and is about to go into public beta. I got an invite to Join Diaspora this week and take it for a spin.

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My first impression: Diaspora is so spare it makes Facebook look like a video game. Even Google Plus is gaudy by comparison. If anything, Disapora looks more like a G+ clone – or rather, vice versa. Given that G+ emerged some seven months after Diaspora went public, I’m guessing Google was taking notes.

The most notable feature of Diaspora is its “Aspects,” which is essentially identical to Google’s “Circles” or Facebook’s “Lists” – a way to filter your friends, family, and work associates into neat little piles so you can choose what you share with each.

[img_assist|nid=197317||title=Diaspora Aspects = Google Circles|desc=|link=none|align=center|width=556|height=246]

You start out with Family, Friends, Work, Acquaintances, then can add your own from there. One difference between Diaspora and G+ is that you can make your Aspects public (so if you add someone to the “Total @holes” Aspect, better first uncheck that little box that makes your list visible).

Interestingly, if you link Diaspora to your Facebook account, it installs a Facebook app that pulls your friends list out and makes it easy to invite them to join Diaspora via Facebook Messages. It also reserves the right to send me emails and access my data at any time, even when I’m not using Diaspora. That’s a bit funky for a site that started as a response to Facebook’s insatiable appetite for user data.

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So far, Zuckerberg & Co. haven’t tried to put a stop to that. We’ll see if that changes.

What else? Like G+, Diaspora is ad free. Like Facebook, it’s got a Like button. It’s also got its first app – Cubbi.es, a photo collection tool that makes it easy to grab pictures off the Net and hoard them all in one place, infuriating copyright lawyers everywhere.

It also offers a Twitter-like feature where you can plug in hashtags and follow discussions. And really, that’s about it. Like I said, it’s spare.

The other key difference? Diaspora is open source. Anybody can take the code and improve it. And that’s the biggest differentiator, according to co-founder Max Salzberg, who was kind enough to submit to an interview via email. He writes:

Users' data on Diaspora is 100% user-owned and controlled, as a result of our unique distributed and open-source approach.  No other site can give you this guarantee.  …Diaspora's source code is freely available to anyone and may be redistributed with or without modification, which means that developers can perform thorough inspections of the code, and users can rest assured that Diaspora doesn't arbitrarily redistribute personal information without the user's explicit permission or consent.  Moreover, if the user installs the Diaspora software on their own server (or what we call pods), they can be confident that the data belongs to them, and them only. 

Then there’s Diaspora’s business model, or lack thereof. At this point Salzberg says he and his Diaspora partners have no plans to monetize the site. And while Diaspora is certainly more private than Facebook by default, it’s about on a par with Google Plus. So do we really need Diaspora – or for that matter, any other new social network?

Salzberg says it’s not a question of what Diaspora is today, but what it will eventually become, thanks to innovations based on the open source model.

Existing social networks were all built for a particular moment in time.  When you use Facebook, you're using a network designed for users in 2003 that is essentially the same network it was back then.  The same applies for Google+, which in 2015 will look a lot like the network designed for users in 2011….

In contrast, Diaspora is not a traditional social network per se, but rather a social web, because it consists of a modular network of networks or social services that evolves as its constituent networks or services evolve.  …Thus, as a Diaspora user, you'll get a social web of services that will constantly evolve according to the services that are connected to it. …  This means that, in the near future, users will have access to a greater variety and a richer set of social experiences on Diaspora than what will be available on existing social networking sites.  

Also: Unlike G+, they don’t care what name you use or if you’re anonymous. So they got that going for them.

Can Diaspora displace Facebook -- or Google+, if it’s the dominant social net in three years’ time? It doesn’t seem likely. But then, stranger things have happened.

Now that the east coast earthquake is history, TY4NS blogger Dan Tynan is bracing for Hurricane Irene and starting to think that God has it in for him. Visit his snarky, occasionally NSFW blog eSarcasm or follow him on Twitter:@tynan_on_tech. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-to’s, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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