For all their utility, a draw back of the social media tools I use is that they are centralised. One monolithic, commercially operated platform acts as a repository for all of my (and my friends’ and contacts’) content, links and networks. In a fun debate yesterday on the email question (during which I did my bit to help Seafarers UK) one major point in email’s favour was interoperability – the fact that its a plural market with any number of provides, an established standard, and everyone has an email address. While it’s getting easier to conceive of the time when everyone has a Facebook account (even my brother) much in the way everyone now has a mobile, concerns over the privacy, longevity and usage of our content still stand. If Flickr shut down or dramatically changed its operating conditions I would lose all the meta data and comments for the few hundred photos.
If we were to host our own content, we’d still need some way to authenticate those who we wished to permit access. But if we could host our content, while we used a network to connect to others’ – in my mind I imagine this as being a little like the arrival of peer to peer networks for file sharing and distribution – we could have the best of both worlds. Especially if the software that enabled the hosting and powered the network were open source. And this, as I understand it, is what Diaspora will offer when it is launched in a couple of weeks.
The best of both worlds for me, though, is not necessarily something my friends will want or enjoy. Most of them are unlikely to want to host their own seed, or even know how to. So Diaspora could then easily become a ghetto for techies and nerds, if they did not have their eye on the WordPress model of free open source software (.org) for those who want flexibility and power and hosting (.com) for those that want the convenience. Although with hosting you’re still trusting to a provider, you have choice and there’s no lock-in: it’s all portable if you want to switch. The critical factor will be over whether anyone can find a way to offer Diaspora hosting for free, in the way WordPress.com (and of course FB) are free.
If so perhaps Diaspora can repeat Firefox’s trick of carving out a share of a market heavily dominated by one player.
Of course the key thing in terms of its success for me will be how many friends will join. Alas, I got no responses at all to a post on both Facebook and Twitter last week, suggesting my friends are all happy to stay put. I’ll either have to stay with them, or end up on a social network talking only to myself…