Diaspora in Pictures: A Candid Walkthrough in Alpha

Is Diaspora a FaceBook-killer? I'll show you where it's at, and what I think– you decide.
Written by Violet Blue, Contributor

At this point in time, if you are the kind of person who loves your visits to Facebook, then it is reasonable to conclude that you are the kind of person who also enjoys suffering and pain.

Not that there is necessarily anything wrong with liking suffering and pain. There are many people who do, and they typically pay beautiful and mean women or handsome and punishing men to dole out Facebook-style sessions. They charge by the hour, in fact.

These professionals are a lot better looking than Facebook. But I suspect that if you go to Facebook to fill that empty place where a harsh and cruel professional might be, then perhaps you settle with the notion that you are at least getting a cheap bargain.

Suffice it to say, if Facebook were a dominatrix, she would be out of business by now. Even when your business is customer fear and torment, you still need customer satisfaction and trust. Facebook has neither. Dominatrixes at least know the importance of safeguarding your secrets. Facebook gives people who administer pain and humiliation for a living, a bad name.

We know this. We sit back and watch the giants – Yahoo!, Google, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple – and no one makes it any better for us. Meanwhile, the innovation sector can only belch up another Groupon clone.

So when Diasporahit the news in May as a potential "Facebook killer" we all sat up like Meerkats and took notice. Promising to beat Facebook with an open source, privacy-oriented, personally controlled social network, Diaspora shook things up. On Kickstarter their goal was $10K; in no time at all they crowd-sourced just over $220K.

What happened? A launch was promised for the end of summer, and winter is just around the corner. Diaspora is still only in invite-only Alpha – while GNU Social, based on similar principles, is days away from their Alpha launch. Rumor has it that GNU social is much more complete than Diaspora. Some people think that Diaspora is too late.

Diaspora is really just the better known of the emergent open standards social movement – the backlash to Facebook, thy name is distributed. Standards are emerging that will allow GNU social, Diaspora, and other networks to communicate with each other and you keep your profile, your own. Many are thinking Beyond Diaspora. It is much like how the current open standards for email broke down the walled garden of AOL.

I got an invite to Diaspora, and I'll show you where it's at, and what I think– you decide if it's the Facebook killer, or not.

Next: Look, Feel and Controversy -->

Note: click on images to get a closer look.

The first thing to notice about Diaspora is that it is beautiful. So pretty, in fact, that it's difficult not to want it to be everything we hoped for. If the clean, uncluttered feel of a great Apple app made sweet love to a social network and had some of Twitter's DNA in the mix, this would be the love child.

When signing up for Diaspora, users are asked to create a handle. This is your profile handle and it is assigned what looks like and email address. At this time it is not: the way Diaspora functions is through a network of servers called "pods" and these are where profiles are housed. It denotes (to software, etc.) where your profile is hosted, on which pod (server).

It is ridiculously easy to use; you do not need a sherpa or "guru". One thing that caused a surprising amount of angst with at least one blogger was that the "gender" field is left to the user's discretion as a free-form text box.

For women, this is a pleasant surprise, as denoting your gender on social networks makes you a target for unwanted attention, no matter what. For a blogger who had intended to position themselves as the early "Diaspora blogger" it was too controversial, and they closed down the blog with an angry rant on the importance of binary gender in social UI.

Incidentally, the programmer at Diaspora who did this, a woman, had a really great reason for making it a text field.

Next: Control Your Unruly Friends -->

In Diaspora, friends and connections are categorized by "Aspects." The profile has "Family" and "Work" in place, and an aspect creator so you can make categories for relationships. For instance, I created a "Cool Online Friends" category for people I am friends with online, but not yet in real life.

Other people can't see your Aspects, so it is more for personal organization. People can be drag-and-dropped into categories so it's easy to shuffle your friend decks.

This becomes a Manage Aspects page, with requests on the left that can be dragged to the category you prefer. The labels "Family," "Work," and all others can be renamed just by clicking on the name and re-naming them whatever you want.

If someone finds you on the network and wants to "friend" you, Diaspora sends you an email, however there doesn't seem to be any way to turn email friend requests off – this is a big issue for users with volume (like me) and lots of traffic. I'm not sure yet if this will be annoying, or if there is a solution right around the corner: this is a private network for now, so I'm not worried.

Next: What There Is To Do On Diaspora -->

After creating a profile and adding friends by searching for names or handles, the home page looks like a crisp Tumblr blog, with a touch of Twitter. There is a "wall" for text and picture posts. Writing a status update and adding a picture is instant, and it posts to the "walls" of your friends.

Your friends can comment on the post in a conversational thread, with no text limit. Hitting "enter" posts your response, so it feels fast, like an IM conversation. Comments can be collapsed so people's conversations don’t clutter your wall. The finished post has its own page and permalink, like a Tweet, and comments can be added. There is only a picture function at this time (no video as of yet).

Next: To Love, Or Not To Love Diaspora And Its Ilk -->

The Home page fills out, with Aspects on the right. Clicking among the top tabs allows view sorting by categories and posting to that particular group of friends. Account editing Top right drop-down menu delivers account settings and profile editing much like Twitter. In Account, Diaspora allows users to Export Data by XML download and downloading all pictures, with a clear "Close Account" button.

Diaspora is far too young to pass judgment on yet, but I will say that it's still too basic to be useful. If it keeps going the way it is, it will be stunning. Simple: and not just because there isn’t much there yet.

It's so easy to use that it makes Facebook look like MySpace and Geocities made a big, fugly, fussy baby.

At this time, don't fret about the closed nature of this beast. It's not prime time. On Diaspora there are no public groups, calendars, photo galleries or private messages, and discovery of anything outside of someone you already know is just not possible. You can't post to friend's profiles, or any of the other things people like to do to give the world TMI online.

What Diaspora does offer is friends, adding people from other Diaspora websites (federating), a great way to manage your own friends, and a way to share status updates and have conversations about posts that reminds me of the beautiful simplicity of Twitter – but is not limited by character count.

What's happening with Diaspora and things like GNU Social could signal a huge shift in the way we use social networks. The move is to decentralize profiles away from corporate networks, sort of like seeing Facebook as Big Social.

Above all, people want to enjoy social networks again.

Do you think people would rather use centralized, corporate social networks? Are GNU Social and Diaspora ultimately too complex for anyone but geeks? Talk back in the comments and let me know.

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