Saturday, 15 May 2010

Thoughts on Diaspora / Distributed Social Networks

This post, by Matt Asay, decries Diaspora (the forthcoming Open Source Distributed Social network which seeks to disintermediate FB and other centralised social networks in favour of personal 'seeds' - services which directly connect to each other and aggregate content from services, essentially externalizing the social graph into links between seeds).

He makes some good points, largely that this is a geek toy for geeks (although he misses the obvious corollary that in this game, that's how everything starts, but if Gibson's to be believed, the street finds its own uses for things. Isn't that what happened with Twitter?) and that the technical nous required to set up a seed is going to be too high (which is a problem the scene can solve).

His fundamental fallacy, though, is that ordinary people just don't care about the privacy and safety aspects of their data, and that they value the aggregation of "everything in one place" ie FB.

This simply isn't true. It's not just that survey after survey is coming out showing that the so-called digital native generation do care about their privacy, they just feel that they have no option but to use FB. It's not just that Zuckerpunched has entered the lexicon, to mean being tricked into revealing more information than you intended to.

The basic fallacy "ordinary people value aggregation over privacy" is disproved by looking at people's plans for their birthday (and it's mine next week - send me cake :) ). Most people will have two or three (or even more) separate celebrations for their birthday - there'll be drinks with colleagues after work one evening, there'll be a family meal and a gathering for friends.

Those partitions of the social graph exist for ordinary people, and they represent groups in which ordinary people may well display different aspects of themselves, and it's that which Matt's missing, and it's that which is a huge stumbling block for FB. They don't segregate your data into sets which accurately represent your aspects and groups of connections. They don't, because they can't. I don't mean technically, because of course they could with enough engineering resource. They can't, because they're a slave to the needle now, baby. Monetizing your info is the only thing that's going to keep their VC investors happy, and by now, everyone has such high expectations (4sq turned down 100M - and if that's not the dictionary definition of delusional, I don't know what is) that they have to scrabble to get every last cent out of you, and that means mining all of your information.

Perhaps in a few years, we'll come to look back on the idea that the social graph should be monetized separately by many sites, all of which seek to lock up and treat as proprietary the connections between human beings - perhaps we'll come to see this as a strange passing fancy from which a mature market awakened. One thing seems certain, however - the current situation in which the social graph is replicated imperfectly across dozens or hundreds of sites is incredibly inefficient, and with the 800-pound Facebook gorilla failing to provide a functionality which the overwhelming majority of people want (the ability to manage multiple aspects of your personal graph), then the situation is ripe for upset.

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