Should Facebook Be Worried About Diaspora?

As Facebook has become an increasingly powerful magnet for controversy — over privacy and the way it handles user information, but also over the sheer size and dominance of the social network — interest has grown in finding some kind of open alternative. Perhaps the most obvious sign of that is the frenzy of support for a new project called Diaspora, which describes itself as “the privacy aware, personally controlled, do-it-all, open source social network.” But does this upstart platform, or any open-source alternative for that matter, stand a real chance of competing with Facebook?

Diaspora was put together by a team of students from New York University and went public on the “crowdfunding” platform Kickstarter in April, and within weeks had raised more money than any project the site had ever seen. By the time the fundraising closed, it had more than $200,000 from thousands of donations. That’s definitely a big vote of confidence in the idea, which is essentially to build an open and distributed social network that could duplicate some of what Facebook does, but without the proprietary standards and without being controlled by a single company (the team describes its vision in a video embedded below).

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg likes to say that the thing he is worried about the most is an unknown startup, but the fact remains that his company has 500 million users, and an estimated $1 billion in revenue, and even the team behind Diaspora admits that it is currently little more than an idea and some rough code. At this point, it seems a little like a contest between a mouse and an 800-pound gorilla — and those typically don’t end well for the mouse. Some observers have also raised questions about whether the money Diaspora has gathered through donations — some of which, ironically, came from Mark Zuckerberg himself — will be enough to produce anything workable, given the promises that Diaspora has made to those who donated (including T-shirts, CDs and a year’s worth of phone support). Jason Fried of 37signals argued in a recent post that the project has actually been “cursed” by the attention it has gotten, because it has raised expectations too high.

While there are other attempts to put together an open-source alternative to Facebook — including Appleseed, which has been around for several years — Diaspora seems to have tapped into a rich vein of anti-Facebook sentiment, fueled in part by the company’s recent changes to its privacy settings. There has also been increasing pressure on Facebook to allow users to extract their data from the social network and either back it up or move it elsewhere. The social network has pledged its support for the Data Portability project in the past — and Zuckerberg reiterated it vaguely in his recent speech launching the network’s new privacy controls — but it has done little to make that a reality.

The big unanswered question, however, is just how much of the frustration and irritation with Facebook exists only in the insular technology blogosphere — elevated by activism on the part of consumer advocacy groups in putting pressure on government — and how much is a real reflection of widespread dissatisfaction with the social network. And even if there is dissatisfaction, it’s not clear how deep it runs, or how long it will last. Facebook managed to weather a similar storm of controversy following its introduction of the news feed, something that was widely criticized but has since become hugely popular.

Alternatives like Diaspora have to prove that they have something compelling that will justify users adopting the service as a new standard or a new home for their content, or even justify exploring it as an alternative. Facebook, for all its flaws, is a known quantity with a well-established use case, and network effects mean that virtually any user of the site has dozens of friends he or she is connected to, which means that moving elsewhere will take a significant amount of psychological effort. Diaspora is going to need some pretty big incentives to change that behavior. It seems unlikely that “we are more open” will do the trick.

In addition to the psychological barrier, Diaspora and its fellow alternatives require users to have a certain amount of technological know-how, and that is going to restrict their appeal. Using Facebook is as simple as clicking a mouse button or typing in a text box, but from the sounds of the project, Diaspora in its initial stages will require users to run a version of the software on their own PCs (although the site says there will be a professionally hosted version as well). Not everyone is going to like that idea, or be able to implement it. Twitter has at least one competitor with a similar model — — but it has gotten very little uptake from mainstream users, even when those users were outraged about Twitter’s repeated downtime problems.

Everyone loves to root for an underdog (some are optimistic about Diaspora’s chances), and Facebook is clearly in the spotlight on privacy and other issues for a number of very good reasons. But it is going to take a lot more than some clever code and $200,000 to build something that can be a realistic alternative to the world’s largest social network.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d): Facebook Tries to Navigate the Privacy Storm

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Fabbio