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?

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I also ran into a few bugs, which was expected. Some were innocuous, like the error message that you see when you click on your own user profile image. Others were a little more problematic, like the way users on the same node can't see each other's updates even when friended to each other.

Right now it's not possible to do a whole lot with a Diaspora seed. You can post status messages and pictures to aspects, upload images to a gallery, write replies to other people's messages, manage your own aspects and profile, and make friend requests from other Diaspora seeds.

And that's about it, since most of the work at this stage is about infrastructure and not end-user features. Some of that laps over into user features, though, like the forthcoming ability to scrape or republish streams from Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and so on. But it's clearly going to be a long time before the bulk of features added to Diaspora are of direct interest to regular users.

Problems to be solved

Right away, I can see several major problems with Diaspora that need to be addressed before its own creators can even think about promoting it as a social networking solution.

The first, and in my opinion biggest, is the lack of useful documentation. Diaspora's behaviors and internal protocols need to be documented apart from the source code itself, so that others can create their own implementations -- their own clients, their own Android apps, even their own Diaspora-integrated Facebook widgets -- without relying wholly on Diaspora's own code. If the docs are out there somewhere, I can't find them. (I had the same problem with Google's VP8 video codec earlier in the year: the spec consisted of Google's reference implementation code, which is never a good idea.)

Another potential problem is Diaspora's component stack. Many hosting providers do support Ruby but few support MongoDB, which would make setting up a public Diaspora instance a lot tougher for your average Web host.

A third issue is that open-source social networking has been around in one form or another for a while now, even if its previous implementations haven't been getting the same degree of attention as Diaspora. Some examples include BuddyPress (which has been out since May 2009 and which works with WordPress), GNU Social and StatusNet, which is the basis for the micro-blogging site identi.ca.

So although Diaspora is starting from a clean slate and with a slightly different set of goals in mind, it means less re-use of existing work already accomplished by others.

Conclusions

Let's face it: there's a romance to the idea of a gang of upstarts sticking it to Facebook by creating a competing platform that's inherently open, private and decentralized. There's little argument that Facebook could use competition from different directions, if for no other reason than to pressure it into being less monolithic and cavalier.

But Diaspora won't make that happen automatically. It already has some degree of competition from elsewhere in the open-source world, too. And it's a long way from being anything the average user can try out, let alone rely on.

Still, it's quite early in the development process. The finished product might not resemble this early version in the slightest, either in its architecture or its deployment method. And, again, it's exciting to see people trying something this radical with nothing more than their own enthusiasm to power them.

You can download Diaspora's code at its Web site JoinDiaspora.com.

Serdar Yegulalp has been writing about computers and information technology for over 15 years for a variety of publications, including InformationWeek and Windows Magazine.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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