All about the Diaspora* social network
Posted by on November 1st, 2011 in Articles, Big Social


They're pulling from all sides. Pull back with Diaspora!

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Marshall McLuhan’s famous words, “the medium is the message”. According to him, how you send a message colours the message itself, influencing how the message is perceived. This is apparent in real life; just think of how many Facebook invites you’ve staved off without reading as compared to how many phone calls you’ve hung up on without answering. The content of both messages could very well be the same, but it is already coloured by our “Facebook messages are trivial while phone calls are a bit more of a priority” bias, even before we’ve had a chance to judge the actual message.

Well, this left me wondering: can a message be liberated from its medium? I suppose not really, not to any definite degree at least, but this bias can certainly be controlled by the sender.

Cory Doctorow presents an interestingly optimistic point of view in Shannon’s Law (2011) that goes head to head with McLuhan’s words: “The Net’s secret weapon is that it doesn’t care what kind of medium it runs over.” Well, this certainly seems to be the case with Diaspora, where communication is already happening on a few levels.

I mentioned earlier how Diaspora effectively combines all the goodness of Twitter and Facebook while also providing a primitive blogging platform through its open design (in fact, a pull request for a more polished “notes” feature has since been pushed on GitHub!). Diaspora is constantly moving toward pulling together conversations, reunifying our thoughts to be deliverable in whatever format we choose. Here, I’ll let Maxwell explain:

It is important to point out that this isn’t happening by design, but rather organically, as the openness of the system is allowing users to reach out and push at its boundaries, stretching out to tap previously unimagined uses.

Hmm, alright, so maybe it is happening through design, but less intentionally than experimentally.

A great example of this is how some users have begun polling their audiences. They present an issue in a post and reply to it with a string of potential responses, each in its own comment. Users can then pop by and “like” a comment to vote for it. This kind of creativity gets me really excited—I can’t wait to see this system polished so that Doodle joins Facebook and Twitter in the list of platforms whose services get absorbed into Diaspora.

But social sites like Facebook and Twitter aren’t the only media providing increasingly specialized communication styles, thereby increasingly dividing the deliverability of our messages. Take a look at all modern-day communication. Our outbound thoughts are constantly being broken up by the same media whose aim is precisely to get these messages across unadulterated.

... now just imagine if they all pulled in the same direction.

“What time are you going to be on Skype?” – “But she sent you the Facebook invite!” – “Just email me.” – “I’ll call you.”– “Follow me on Twitter!” – “I’ll send you the Dropbox link.” – “It’s all on Google Docs…”

All these different ways of a message getting from one person to another. It’s like the Tower of Babel all over again. How many different services must we incessantly plug into to ensure we don’t miss out on anything?

Too many.

And this is precisely why I love the Diaspora project. Being free and open source, and having a community of volunteers numbering in the thousands, there is quite literally nothing Diaspora cannot do… which brings me to the main hope behind this article.

I’ve spent much of this past summer thinking about how amazing a solution Diaspora is to a problem most people don’t even know exists. This thinking has evolved into wondering, well, what else is possible? What else can we add to this mix? You don’t have to ask me twice. A real-time chat service! Luckily, this is already in the works. In fact, there are rumours that even video chat might be up and running soon, effectively killing any need for Skype.

With chat out of the way, an email client would be my wish. The name@pod handle formatting playfully hints that this is a direction a curious, talented hacker might want to explore. What would I do to move my inbox onto a Diaspora pod (preferably on my own server)? Oh man, a lot.

I’m one of many–too many–using Gmail because it really is a magnificent system. The only drawback is it sucks you into the Google machine. I’m sure I’m not the only one out there who’s signed into Gmail in one tab and then opened a Google search on another, only to curse, “Woooah, I’m automatically signed into searches now? How did this happen?” Yeah. Not cool.

I know, I know. There are many decent options for email providers out there, from hosting your own to paying for a professionally run service. I’ve played with most of them these past few months, but nothing out there quite compares to Gmail just yet.

But just imagine if Diaspora were to offer email support. I mean like full email support: searching through emails, functions like “undo send” and conversation stacking, comprehensive contact lists—the works. Wouldn’t this be wonderful? This service would immediately come out on top. It’s got a community of really interesting people that come as part of the package, and it will soon have account migration built right into it, something the big guys just don’t offer. Imagine how amazing it would be to download your entire account onto a USB stick (viewable on any regular browser directly from the stick), delete your old account, and then re-upload it all onto a new pod. Fantastic! And not to mention all the free advertising the Diaspora project would receive if 100,000 tech-savvy early adopters started using their Diaspora handles as emails! Eyebrows would certainly be raised, and folks would start asking questions.

Someone has to get on this. Pleeease, someone get on this!

A final note: I keep mentioning that Diaspora is gathering more and more functionality, kicking previous providers like Facebook, Twitter, blogging clients and Skype to the curb, but this really isn’t the way I’d like to see this system develop. Ideally, I’d like to live in a world where anyone could use any online medium to connect with anyone else on any other online medium, as one of Diaspora’s execs once explained and as Ryan Brockey neatly summed up:

“I don’t want my mom to have to switch to a new social network. She likes Facebook and it took long enough to get her on there. I want the ability to talk to her and interact with her even if I’m not on Facebook. That is why I support Diaspora, it has the potential to make that possible.”

If a friend refuses to get off of MSN or to drop their Gmail account because making the switch to Diaspora is too much of a techno jump, so be it. I’ll happily communicate with them on whatever medium they choose, granted I can also choose my vessel. Of course, I’d be more hesitant to share things with friends using third-party software like Facebook or Google products, but this wouldn’t play a role in most day-to-day matters. Eventually, cross-service federation will have to succumb to the 100th monkey effect and we can all sleep again at night. Again, Ryan said it best: “Once we have experienced a social web where your home network does not dictate who you can connect to, why would we ever go back?”

For now, the more features we mix into Diaspora, the stronger the message we spread that hey, maybe it’s time to rethink the old Web 2.0 communication platform and maybe, just maybe, it’s time to start looking for a way of connecting better and of decentralizing our communication at its corporate tops while recentralizing it at the grass roots level, where it actually matters.

It’s high time we free our message from its medium. Sorry, Marshall, but I’m with Cory on this one.

Feel free to contact the author about anything Diaspora-related, or to suggest a topic for a future post. He’ll get back to you just as soon as he’s done singing along to S Club 7.

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