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03 September 2012, 16:09

Learning from Diaspora

by Glyn Moody

As the remaining founders of Diaspora hand the project over to the community, Glyn Moody asks what lessons we can learn from the success and failure of a free software project and considers the importance of thinking about what happens next.

A few weeks ago, I suggested that crowdfunding might be a way of supporting worthy free software projects. So news that the open source social network Diaspora was to evolve into a "community" project offers a salutary reminder that even the most popular crowdfunded projects aren't guaranteed to succeed.

Not that Diaspora has failed, exactly: it has delivered most of the things that it set as its goals in the initial call for funding on Kickstarter. According to its own figures, there are now 125 "pods", or independent servers, running with 381,649 users and 1,856,969 connections between them. So it has produced the basic technology required to create a distributed system, but when you think of Facebook pushing a billion users, it's clear that Diaspora has not managed to attract enough people to make it a serious alternative.

I joined early on, and have periodically taken a look at how it has been coming along. The problem is fundamentally that there's not much activity there, and so little incentive to go back often, which naturally creates a classic Catch-22 situation. In fact, it was always clear that overcoming Facebook's immense advantage due to network effects would be the main challenge, and so it has proved.

Was that failure inevitable? Are all attempts to generate network effects doomed when there is a hugely dominant player like Facebook already occupying the space? Well, we shall have another opportunity to find out with, which has also raised money through crowdfunding, and also attracted the kind of sudden enthusiasm that Diaspora did when it the idea was first mooted. Sadly, though, the code of won't be open. There's no reason why that should make it more successful, except that it might attract a wider range of commercial participants. It will be interesting to compare the trajectories of the two projects.

Going back to Diaspora, the official announcement of the shift gives a few clues as to what some of the problems have been:

Diaspora has grown into something more than just a project four guys started in their office at school. It is bigger than any one of us, the money we raised, or the code we have written. It has developed into something that people all over the world care about and are inspired by. We think the time is right to reflect this reality, and put our code where our hearts lie.

Today, we are giving control of Diaspora to the community.

As a Free Software social project, we have an obligation to take this project further, for the good of the community that revolves around it. Putting the decisions for the project’s future in the hands of the community is one of the highest benefits of any FOSS project, and we’d like to bring this benefit to our users and developers. We still will remain as an important part this community as the founders, but we want to make sure we are including all of the people who care about Diaspora and want to see it succeed well into the future.

That's nicely played, and worthy of any megacorporation marketing department trying to spin a major setback as a welcome opportunity. But this kind of sudden change of direction is not indicative that things are proceeding smoothly; on the contrary, it's of a piece with Netscape's decision to open source its Communicator Internet suite: a sign that all other options have been exhausted, leaving only more dramatic action.

It's no coincidence that the current Diaspora team made another announcement just a few days ago:

In case you hadn’t heard, we were accepted into YCombinator‘s Summer 2012 batch. We came in working on some radical new ideas for Diaspora*; you may have seen a few users with new fancy profiles and a shiny new publisher. After seeking advice from our mentors, and receiving feedback from the Diaspora* community, we realized these ideas could have legs of their own. After much thought, we decided that bringing such drastic change to the current Diaspora* software that thousands of people worldwide use everyday might be more disruptive than beneficial at this time.

Thus, was born, and we launched last week!

Next: Light in the dark

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