Diaspora: A first peek at Facebook's challenger

Does the developer's version give any hints of how this upcoming social network plans to unseat the reigning king?

When word began to circulate about Diaspora, the hype about it being a potential Facebook killer took on a life of its own before a single line of code had been released. Now the first developer's alpha version of Diaspora is out in the wild, and the hype is being replaced with scrutiny and well-deserved skepticism.

Its creators claim that Diaspora is a "privacy-aware, personally controlled, do-it-all distributed open-source social network" -- and maybe someday it will be. But there are more pieces missing than there are pieces in place, and Diaspora has a long and rocky road ahead if it wants to achieve even half of its stated goals.

To be fair, this is still a very early version of the software, and here and there it does offer insights into how Diaspora is meant to work.

The basic interface for a Diaspora user's page, which is clearly based on Facebook's.

The concept behind Diaspora is simple: Instead of interacting with a single, centrally controlled social networking service like Facebook or Twitter, you set up and work with a "seed" -- a copy of the Diaspora code running on a server you control yourself. It's like hosting a copy of WordPress on your Web space to run your blog, instead of using Blogger or another third-party service.

Users on different seeds can friend each other, automatically exchange data (messages, status updates, pictures, etc.) and enjoy automatic end-to-end encryption of message traffic. They will also have rigorous control over how much information they share with others.

It sounds great in theory, but right now very little of this has been implemented in practice.

Diaspora's building blocks

Diaspora is written in Ruby and uses a few non-Ruby pieces -- the MongoDB database and the ImageMagick image processing library, for instance. The setup instructions favor Ubuntu Linux and Mac OS X, so rather than wrestle with my hosting provider (which doesn't support MongoDB), I installed a clean copy of Ubuntu 10.04 on a virtual machine and set things up there.

The entire process, including downloading the Diaspora source and the needed support files, took about half an hour. Trying to set up an instance of Diaspora will be rough going unless you're comfortable working with the command line in Linux and you know your way around Ruby and the Git source code version-control system.

Diaspora's friend-management page. Friends can be dragged between the aspects you set up, which allows them to see different activity streams.

Once I got my own seed running, I created a few local users and experimented with the user interface. Every user can create and manage multiple "aspects," which are a little like Facebook's friend groups. When you assign a friend to one of your aspects, they see only what you post to that aspect. (It's also possible to post to all aspects at once.) The message streams and conversation threads are blatantly Facebook-like, but that's not a bad idea: Why reinvent a perfectly good, familiar wheel?

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