The Federation

Remember the days before Facebook, when people were on MySpace or Classmates Reunited, or Friendster? Alas, all those sites lost too many users and stopped making money and shut down. And the sites that were supposed to kill Facebook, like Ello, which failed to gain critical mass, never made any money and shutdown. Or Diaspora*, which everyone was on for 5 minutes, but it was kind of alpha, so people mostly wandered away from and then it didn’t shut down.

Diaspora* wasn’t a commercial project and never needed to make money for investors. It just needed to fundraise enough to keep the servers turned on, which it did. Some people kept using it. And that’s all it takes for a non-corporate network: some interested users and paying the server fees.

Diaspora’s software is still being developed and is a lot more robust and faster than it was during it’s 15 minutes of fame. Of course, the servers have fewer users than they did back then, but are still fairly gigantic.

Facebook’s active user base is a lot bigger than many countries, so they have a lot of computers behind the scenes, working together so that, to you, it looks like everything is one one computer. This requires a lot of central control. Diaspora doesn’t follow this model. Instead, it’s more like email. If I use hotmail and you use gmail, we can still send each other letters, we just know that our email address is our users name AND the server name. Diaspora is like that, so my diaspora address is celesteh@joindiaspora.com. It looks like an email address because it has a user name and a server name, but it’s not for email, it’s for social networking.

Hotmail and gmail are operated separately, but they both understand how to send email. Similarly, all the diaspora servers, called ‘pods’, are separate from each other and are run by different people or groups of people. There are less than 300 pods, many of which have tens or hundreds of thousands of user accounts. (Maybe including your account from back in the day, waiting for you to log back in.) All of these pods, together with their ability to communicate is called ‘The Federation.’

The Federation is still going and has more active users than you might guess. A lot of people leaving facebook found their old diaspora accounts and logged back in! But they probably found that most of their old contacts weren’t still active. I still have my old account, but I don’t log in every day. Diaspora is built to protect privacy and I can think of some great use cases, but it’s hard to deploy. It’s also built to resist censorship, which was a major issue at the time it was designed, which means also that it’s hard to moderate.

Part of the difficulty of moderation is the size. It would take a large team to deal with tens of thousands of users, since figuring out if somebody is misbehaving requires a lot of time and looking at context. But also, the anti-censorship values have lead to a lot of moderators to take a hands-off approach and thus they tolerate racist posts and hate speech because they don’t want to censor. They say people can block each other, but I don’t find this to be sufficient. Of course, somebody setting up their own pod could take a different approach, but, again, they’re still difficult to deploy.

The Federation, for all it’s faults, does respect your privacy and isn’t trying to make money off your data. It’s not my favourite part of the internet, but it’s better than facebook. I do still log in. It is possible for communities of respectful groups to arise and most of the conversations I have on there are pleasant.

If we know each other on twitter or facebook, do connect to me on diaspora and say hi. I’ll give a Blessing to anybody leaving facebook!

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Charles Céleste Hutchins

Supercolliding since 2003

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