Social Networking Beyond Surveillance

November 28th, 2011   Submitted by Justin T.P. Quinn

In the open-source movement, there is a split between those who emphasize “free as in cheap” and those who emphasize “free as in freedom.” But consumers demand freedom and privacy just as they do utility and affordability. Were that not the case, there would be no such things as drapes or pants.

Google had to learn that the hard way with the failure of Google Buzz. The reason why Google+ is on the rise today is that it caters to those who want more privacy and control. But leading in the area of personal privacy is a new open-source social network called Diaspora*.

Diaspora* was conceived as an open-source, decentralized social network in response to the privacy concerns that arose over Facebook. This is ironic considering that among the thousands of donors was the CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, who defended Diaspora* from a flurry of media criticism in an interview with Wired magazine. Not long after the project was launched in late April on the fundraising website Kickstarter, it passed its goal of raising $10,000, and it reached more than $200,000 from over 6,000 donors by June 1st.

Four students from New York University’s Courant Institute of Mathematics and Science, Daniel Grippi, Maxwell Salzberg, Ilya Zhitomirskiy, and Raphael Sofaer, promised to dedicate their entire summer to the project. Dismissed as just more “vaporware” by its critics, Diaspora*’s source code was released to the public on September 15, 2010. As of this writing, there have been over 1,000 code contributions from about 300 volunteers. Diaspora over has over 5000 followers on Github and more than 70,000 followers on Twitter.

What’s So Great About Diaspora?

So here comes the part of the article where I tell everyone to quit Facebook, forget about Google+, get yourself a Diaspora* account, and stick it to The Man. But I can’t exactly do that, not yet anyway. Yes, social networking through Diaspora* is the best way to keep full control over your private information while still staying connected. In addition, because it’s open source, you have access to the source code, which allows you to customize and share more than you ever could on another network. To be honest, the potential of Diaspora* is enormous; but it’s not as simple as just joining up.

You see, Diaspora* is no Facebook. It’s not even a web site, really. It is a group of software packages. Essentially, Diaspora* turns your computer into your own personal web server. The added data security comes from being able to send data directly from one PC to another without going through a central node. The guys running Diaspora* aren’t “promising” to keep your data private. They never have it to begin with.

This idea is not new. Facebook had its own version of this called Wirehog, but it was killed off by Facebook’s then-president Sean Parker, who cofounded Napster. Parker shot the project dead over legal concerns, because he didn’t want to see another company taken down like Napster was. AppleSeed was another attempt at a more decentralized social network, but it never managed to raise the necessary funding. Succeeding where others failed, Diaspora* is challenging the very definition of what we think of as a social network.

Diaspora*, unlike Facebook and Google+, is a distributed social network. When you make a post on Facebook or Google+, that information goes through, and is recorded by, a central server that is owned by Facebook or Google before it gets to anyone else. Diaspora* doesn’t have a central group of servers. Rather, the system is dispersed with various servers being hosted by individuals.

Signing Up For Diaspora*

When you enter “Facebook” or “Google+” into Google Search, the first link on the list of hits will be their main web page. From that page, you merely have to enter a name, password, and email, and you’re ready to go.

If you search “Diaspora*” as of this writing, at the top of the list will be DIASPORA* ALPHA. This is not the Diaspora* main page. This is what is called a “pod.”

A few more hits down, you will see another pod, DIASPORA* Public Pod Diasporg. These pods are two different servers hosting Diaspora*.

The closest thing Diaspora* has to a main website is DiasporaFoundation.org. When you click on the Sign Up button in the top right, you are brought to a different website called Pod UpTime. From here, you are given a list of servers hosting Diaspora* that you can join. Included along with the name of the server are various data on how often it is running, how long it has been up, and what country it’s based in. It is only after choosing which Diaspora provider you want that you are prompted to enter a user name and password.

Just as with any service provider in the free market, you will find that the quality of Diaspora* pods vary. You may find that yours is not running 100 percent of the time. You may find that it is a different language, in which case you will have to download translation software.

Now you may be thinking to yourself, “What’s the point of using Diaspora* if I’m not going to run my own server?” In a way, this is a valid concern. The uniqueness of Diaspora* comes from the fact that you can keep your personal autonomy. Your profile data, along with your pictures, videos, and files are all sitting on your computer, not someone else’s. Yes, you can simply create an account with many of the various Diaspora* providers just as you do with Facebook of Google, but you’re still entrusting your data to someone else.

If you want to have full control over your data, you are going to have to step up your geek level.

Who Should Have A Diaspora* Pod?

But not everyone needs to have his own pod. As time goes on, direct-file-sharing software like Diaspora* will continue to advance and become easier to use and more readily available to the average consumer. Diaspora* is still in the alpha stage of its development cycle, and it isn’t exactly user friendly. For now, it is available mostly as a “geek-only” sort of social network, and it seems destined to remain that way for some time. Still, that doesn’t exactly mean that you have to do the coding yourself to use Diaspora*.

The question is whether or not you have a geek friend you can trust. If so, nearly any group could have their own Diaspora* pod, from blog sites to your local gaming store.

Diaspora* is also the ideal vehicle for antigovernment movements, since it allows users to stay anonymous and use multiple identities as well exchange data securely. It’s not uncommon for government to use a person’s communications over the Internet for prosecution. As the state begins to crack down more and more on our personal liberties, technologies like data encryption and direct file sharing will become ever more critical to the freedom movement.

Hosting Your Own Diaspora* Pod

The first step is going to the download page (again, on a separate site) and downloading the various software packages needed to run Diaspora*. The most important of these build tools is the Ruby programming language. There are several online resources available for learning Ruby, such as the Ruby Inside blog and Ruby-Doc. My personal suggestion for learning the language is CodeSchool.com, where you can sign up for a free online class.[1]

There is also the question of hardware. It really comes down to how you are going to use Diaspora*. If you are just using it for sharing personal files, you don’t need anything more than your own personal computer. However, if you plan on hosting a Diaspora* pod for others, you may want to consider acquiring a separate computer to act as the server. The reason for this is that in order to provide any sort of reliable service whatsoever, you will need the computer to be connected to the Internet and running nearly 24/7. If you decide to go this route, I suggest getting yourself an Evercube.[2]

Diaspora* — Making The Internet More Internet

In a perfect world, networking through a central node like Facebook wouldn’t pose any risk to the users. In a way, it might actually be a good thing for advertisers and entrepreneurs to know how to better serve consumers. In a world where the state exists, however, placing your private information in the hands of corporations can be dangerous. Government, either through passive viewing of profiles or forcing companies to provide them the information they want, can use your personal info to keep track of your activities. You might even be jailed for antigovernment remarks you make, just as Jordan Blackshaw and Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan were in the UK.

In our normal lives, we don’t all communicate through a single third party. We communicate face-to-face and person-to-person. Diaspora* is based on the philosophy that the way we interact on the Internet should be the same. Computers should communicate directly the way their users do. Technology should be something that is made to fit people, not the other way around. A more ubiquitous use of direct file sharing would make the Internet even more decentralized than it was envisioned to be.

To some it may seem like the Internet is trending in the opposite direction, particularly with the rise of cloud computing. However, advancements in computer hardware over the next few years will soon eclipse many of the advantages of centralization. By 2015, cell phones will probably be able to hold 2 terabytes of data, and their processors may be 75 times more powerful than even the best cell phones available today.

Advances in data encryption are also improving at an astounding rate. Firefox, ideologically driven to ensure greater user sovereignty, is developing its software to provide all the services of cloud computing while keeping your data on your computer. These advances are leading us to a future of extreme technological independence, where everyone can have a true, personal website, where the site’s files and code are accessed from their personal computer, giving them complete and total control over their data.

In a way, direct file sharing for the common user is way overdue. Unfortunately, an economy distorted by government intervention is only just now beginning to address the need for more consumer sovereignty. Diaspora* sits at the cutting edge of bringing this dream to the realm of social networking. Your friends won’t be ready for it. No one is ready for it, which is why it will change everything.



Editor’s Note: Ilya Zhitomirsky, one of the creators of Diaspora*, passed away on November 12, 2011.

[1] The real bargain on Code School is the Combined HTML5 and CSS3 course for $55. Typically even at a cheaper county college, HTML and CSS are separate courses, and will cost you around $550.

[2] An Evercube is a dedicated internet server comprised of open-source hardware. You can download the instructions and purchase the various parts yourself, or buy the do-it-yourself kit for about $600. It’s a bit pricy, and the reason for this is that it uses five 2.5” laptop hard drives instead of the 3.5” hard drives that go in your desktop. With laptop hard drives, you end up spending about twice the money for half the storage, but they consume a lot less power. If you’re dedicated to hosting your own Diaspora* node, Evercube is designed to keep your electric bill down over the long haul.

9 Responses to “Social Networking Beyond Surveillance”

  1. Seth KingNo Gravatar says:

    Don’t get me wrong, I think private enterprises should be able to censor any individual or group that they wish.

    But one of the nice things about decentralized social networking, like Diaspora* is that it is impossible to be completely censored from the network. I remember not too long ago Facebook disallowing Medical Marijuana activists from advertising on their network and all of the hubbub that resulted. This would be a non-issue with Diaspora*. If one pod doesn’t want to allow that sort of thing, they can censor it. But if other pods don’t want to censor certain topics, they don’t have to.

  2. Ryan TaylorNo Gravatar says:

    Thank you for the thorough, and much needed explanation. If someone knows Ruby, I personally think that Daily Anarchist should host a pod.
    About a month ago, I closed all of my social network profiles and consolidated to just one Diaspora* account on joindiaspora.com. There have been a couple of occasions that I’ve reactivated my facebook account to make some, what I thought at the time, important status updates. After having some real conversations with helpful strangers on Diaspora* and confidently posting what I want, where I want, for the eyes of whoever I want (or publicly), I honestly feel like facebook is a shitty product and service, not to mention the other networks where I had accounts. I agree that there is a lot of development to be done but believe it will grow exponentially as the developer base grows.
    At present, there’s no real easy way to switch pods, as far as I can tell, but my “stream” is starting to see posts announcing that they are switching around, so I’m sure an easy data migration is on the way.
    In the meantime, it would be nice to fully trust one’s pod. 😉

    • Seth KingNo Gravatar says:

      My server runs the LAMP stack. Here comes a serious noob question, but can I install Ruby on my server as well? And if so, would that create any sort of problems? It’s my understanding that Ruby is necessary to host a pod. So, there’s that hangup, plus there isn’t really a social plugin like Facebook’s. So, until those two issues get resolved I’m not prepared to sink the time into creating my own pod.

      I think just the fact that there is potential for an unlimited number of pods will prevent both surveillance and censorship. I don’t really see much need for Daily Anarchist to host its own pod.

      • Justin T.P. QuinnNo Gravatar says:

        LAMP [http://wiki.debian.org/LaMp] [http://en.opensuse.org/SDB:Linux_Apache_MySQL_PHP] is a software bundle, a collection of programs you use to run various solutions off a server. Diaspora* likewise requires several programs to run [https://github.com/diaspora/diaspora/wiki/Installing-and-Running -Diaspora]. (Note how both require MySQL) Each program is a tool, and Ruby is just the programming language you use. Installing Ruby shouldn’t cause any more trouble than installing Visual Basic or C++. It’s just another tool.

        The real problem with trying to run both the DA site and a DA Pod off the same server is strain on the hardware. Can your processor handle the load? For that reason you may want to consider getting a separate rig. Also, asking around on the various Diaspora forums is a good way to get some practical info on doing that sort of thing.

        Since running a DA Pod is a very time consuming task, the beast thing is to ask for volunteers, either coders on the DA forum or anarchists on the Diaspora forums.

  3. JohnNo Gravatar says:

    I just heard Ilya Zhitomirskiy, Diaspora Co-Founder, apparently committed suicide three weeks ago: http://news.yahoo.com/diaspora-social-network-co-founder-dead-22- 224335471.html.

    Start making foil hats now…

  4. wh00psNo Gravatar says:

    Sorry to necro post. I’ve had this post and the Diaspora setup instructions as open tabs since you put it up ;0) and I’m still struggling to host a pod. I just today bit the bullet and signed up with another one to get myself started, so I just heard about the founder’s death. So sad to hear.

  5. wh00psNo Gravatar says:

    To double necro-post… anybody who comes to Diaspora* by this route (like me) may be glad of this guide to hosting your pod locally:
    https://github.com/diaspora/diaspora/wiki/How-to-Use-Pagekite-to- Link-Your-Own-Domain-Name-to-a-Local-Network-Diaspora-Pod

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