This April Facebook unveiled new default privacy settings which switched many personal details from private to public by default and removing many of the existing, granular controls in the privacy settings. All the while Facebook claimed the settings offered greater control. Articles questioning the modifications quickly spread from tech blogs to the mainstream media, resulting in a public relations train wreck for Facebook.
Meanwhile, open source social networking startups took the opportunity to capitalize on the controversy, the most prominent of which was Diaspora. After raising over $200,000 on Kickstarter, a distributed seed funding website, it has received the bulk of the press’s attention.
Despite all the positive press, many are skeptical of Diaspora’s ability to dent Facebook’s armor. Backupify just posted an article voicing similar ideas.
But many of the criticisms regarding Diaspora are flawed. First is the silly argument that a service or website isn’t dead until it’s completely offline. This is just a bit of semantics, and there is no doubt that MySpace and AOL are both effectively dead and of minimal influence. MySpace seemed unstoppable back in the day even with its disgusting user interface, glitter graphics and horrible themes until Facebook rolled in and demonstrated the importance of a quality user interface. AOL’s walled gardens appeared similarly impenetrable until they too fell. Times change, and even giants fall. Companies that deliver such few products are always fragile.
Second is the idea that users don’t care about privacy. Currently this is a possibility with a majority, but it could very well change in the future as people never know what they want until they see it. But privacy is only part of puzzle as user control of data is of equal importance. People also want to be in control of their documents. People want to own things. People like to know that something is completely theirs. Facebook does not meet any of these criteria.
Third is the idea that the service is a niche product that serves only geeks. This fact cannot be denied at the moment, but it is a hidden advantage. The first users of a product are typically the most passionate about it and thus have a tendency to champion the product. These people also tend to be more influential, and ironically it is these cool, geeky enthusiasts of Diaspora that will make it mainstream.
This is a pattern that has repeated itself many times. Products initially go through a niche phase, slowly gaining traction in the market before exploding into the mainstream as something hot, new and desirable once it gains sufficient positive recognition.
Facebook’s rise to dominance followed this exact pattern. Originally it was introduced to only college students, a small segment of the market. Being young adults, these people are seen as the “next generation” and thus representatives of all that is “cool”. The closed, @edu only walls of Facebook gave it the aura of a hip club that everyone wanted to be a part of. And people did. Once it had established sufficient cachet as the Mecca of Cool, the mainstream naturally wanted in. With its hip reputation and social networking effects, Facebook effectively transitioned from niche to mainstream by letting in more segments of the market before letting in everybody, resulting in the explosive growth today.
While Facebook seems invincible now, there are many problems with a centralized social networking model that make it vulnerable to competitors, such as less control over the website, loss of control over personal data and potential abuse of user data. None of these would be problems in a distributed system such as Diaspora. The superiority of Diaspora is obvious, and I predict that it will not languish as a niche product, but gain traction with the mainstream as it rolls out a hosted version that integrates with self hosted versions.