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It seems that's inspiration was a rather tragic one that came late last year in the week after Diaspora co-founder Ilya Zhitomirskiy killed himself:

Salzberg recalled that he and about 20 friends were sitting in his living room grieving, each absorbed in their own phone. They started sending out tweets to each other, riffing on each other’s jokes in a way that lightened the mood but allowed each person his or her private space.

That feeling of collective creation inspired Makr (pronounced like it’s not missing an “e”), which is now live to the public.

Of course, it's impossible to tell from the outside what confluence of factors led to these recent decisions, but it can't have been easy meeting the high expectations placed upon the founders, especially when they were only drawing $28,800 a year in salary, according to their accounts. So the urge to move on after two intense years, and to begin a completely new project, must have been strong.

The two things that really matter are how the open source community can keep Diaspora moving forward, and what lessons there are for the future.

As Diaspora's Kickstarter page explained, the original inspiration came from Eben Moglen, and his concern that people are sacrificing their privacy for a little convenience. One of the earliest expositions of this idea was here on the H Open, where Moglen warned:

The power that the Web log holds is monetisable, because it provides a form of surveillance which is attractive to both commercial and governmental social control. So the Web, with services equipped in a basically client-server architecture, becomes a device for surveillance as well as providing additional services. And surveillance becomes the hidden service wrapped inside everything we get for free.

His solution was a distributed approach to social networks, based on large numbers of low-power plug servers running software called Freedom Box, version 0.1 of which was released with a rather low-key announcement a few days ago.

Clearly, then, Diaspora supplies an important component of Moglen's vision. For that reason, both he and the Free Software Foundation have a vested interest in keeping Diaspora going. Maybe it could become part of the Freedom Box software, or perhaps the FSF could adopt it as a high-priority project. Certainly, if both Moglen and Stallman publicly supported Diaspora, and called on the free software community to rally around it, its prospects would be much rosier.

The more general lesson is that even with relatively large crowdfunding, free software projects need careful and continuous nurturing. Ironically, it may well be that Diaspora suffered because of its high-profile early success: people might have assumed that unlike less well-funded projects, it could look after itself. That was clearly not the case, and the free software world needs to consider how it can better support such fledgling undertakings, regardless of how much money they have raised.

But there is an even bigger issue here, I think, that concerns project continuity. Too often in the world of free software, projects depend upon one or two key people, either as leaders or programmers – or both. This makes the code extremely vulnerable, and often leads to problems when those key individuals depart for whatever reason.

The open source world does many things brilliantly, but one thing it does badly is planning for leadership succession. This was the case over a decade ago, when I explored the area in "Rebel Code", my early history of the free software world. Worryingly, little has changed since then. Even the nurturing of new coders remains a very hit-and-miss affair – the only large-scale, organised attempt to bring new people into the world of open source is Google's Summer of Code.

At the very least the current developments in the case of Diaspora are a reminder that free software is not doing enough to bring in new coding talent – especially women – or to think ahead in terms of passing on command. If these are not addressed, many other projects could be affected and afflicted with the kind of transition problems we are now seeing with Diaspora, especially as more of the key hackers pass into middle age and beyond, and begin to think about moving on.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or, and on Google+. For other feature articles by Glyn Moody, please see the archive.

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