I don’t know if Diaspora was the first of the alternatives to come along, but it was certainly the first I was aware of. It got a lot of attention for the college students who first put it together (and remember that Facebook was originally created by a college student, Mark Zuckerberg). The four students, Ilya Zhitomirskiy, Dan Grippi, Max Salzberg, and Raphael Sofaer, were inspired by a speech Eben Moglen gave to the Internet society’s New York Chapter, where he described centralized social networks as “Spying for free”. The students chose the name Diaspora, which is a Greek word that means a “scattered or dispersed population” to reflect the idea that instead of a centralized platform, Diaspora would consist of independent nodes, called pods, each running a copy of the free software which is open source and licensed under the GNU-AGPL-3.0 license.
Diaspora software development is managed by the Diaspora Foundation, which in turn is a member of the Free Software Support Network. The FSSN is run by Eben Moglen and the Software Freedom Law Center. Since the software is freely available to anyone, you can, if you wish, download the software and install it on your own server. And since no one controls it, there is no entity to violate your privacy, or run ads against you, etc. Now a server on its own is not very social (though you could invite other people onto the server), but Diaspora solves this by being federated, which means that the servers can talk to each other. In that respect, I find it very similar to the old Usenet network, which is similarly federated, if not as much used these days. As the developers said in a blog post:
“Diaspora’s distributed design is a huge part of it. Like the Internet itself, Diaspora* isn’t housed in any one place, and it’s not controlled by any one entity (including us). We’ve created software that lets you set up and run your own social network on your own “pod” (or server) and connect your network to the larger Diaspora* ecosystem. You can have a pod all to yourself, or one for just you and your friends, or your family, giving you complete ownership and control over your personal social information (including your identity, your posts, and your photos) and how it’s all stored and shared. Or you can simply … sign up at one of [the] open pods.”
In August of 2012, the original developers handed over development to the community, and it has continued as an open source project.
One of the best ways to get started is to go to the Diaspora Foundation Web site, which has a nice 1,2,3 process. Step one is to choose a pod to join.
Choosing a Pod
If you are going to set up your own server, you can skip this step, but for the majority of users I think it makes sense to join an existing server. This server will be your point of entry into the Diaspora system. Since it is a federated network your posts can be seen by everyone you want to have see them, and you can see anything that has been shared to you, regardless of which server they are on. So it wouldn’t matter which one you choose, right? Well, no there are a few considerations. In a distributed system which no one owns, not all servers are equal. On Facebook you can assume that all of the engineers are keeping the servers aligned and in top condition, but in Diaspora that can vary by the sysadmin running the pod. The wiki page I am looking at says that the ability to move your account from one server to another is “coming soon”, and that page says it was last updated 21 November, 2018. So choose wisely at this stage:
The issues you want to consider are:
- Is the server accepting new signups? Servers only have so much capacity, and some may not be taking on any additional traffic right now. Look for one that advertises “Open signups”.
- Software Version: Does this server keep up with software updates regularly, or does it run older versions? I presume that anyone looking for something like Diaspora has a focus on Security and Privacy, and that should mean applying updates pretty quickly.
- Physical Location: There are two reason to care about this. First, we know that some countries (sadly, all too many these days) have governments that want to control everything, and a server located in one of those countries might not give you the security and privacy you are looking for. The other reason this may matter is latency. A server on the other side of the world may add time to how your post appear and how soon you can see others’ posts, but in my view this is not a big concern. Gamers can agonize over milliseconds, but on social media does it really matter if your vacation photos take an extra second or two to show up? I suspect not.
- Domain name: your Diaspora user name will contain the domain name of the server, and you might want to avoid certain names on that account. And having one you can easily remember of share with others is a good idea. Incidentally, this probably explains why they have not yet implemented switching accounts to a different server.
- User rating: Yes, Diaspora servers are rated by users, and you should probably take a look at those ratings before you make your final choice.
So, to get started go to https://podupti.me/, and look through the list of servers. I selected pod.haxxors.com which has 99.75% uptime and is located in Germany. I clicked on the pod name, and got a signup page and put in my e-mail address, desired user name, and password. When you click the button, you can then add an optional photo, and a few of your interests. This becomes your first post into Diaspora, and people who share your interests can see the hashtags. So if anyone wants to contact me there, my user name is email@example.com (or go to https://pod.haxxors.com/i/394c80269066) , and I welcome more friends. I will warn you though that I post a lot about US politics, which may not be to your liking. But I will try to be good about using the appropriate tags.
Make Some Friends
You can distribute your user name, or search for people you know. Other than that, finding specific people is not easy. You can try typing a name in the search bar, but that only searches for usernames and tags, not “real” names. I have tried searching for people I know are on Diaspora without finding them. Other than that, tags can be your friend. Tags identify interests, and based on them you will be presented with posts that match those tags. If you see posts from someone that appeal to you, go the person’s username, hover your mouse, and a pop-up window will open with a button to add a Contact. If it is someone I just like the posts of, I usually select “acquaintance” to start sharing with them. Meanwhile, your posts will start showing up in other people’s streams, and they may start following you.
Diaspora uses something called “Aspects”, which are similar to other social networks. They are a way of grouping your contacts, such as Friends, Family, Work, Acquaintances. You can add a contact to any of these, or to multiple ones, as you wish. You can then send your post to one Aspect, like Friends, or to Multiple aspects (e.g. Friends, Family). You can even send to all aspects simultaneously. If you do this, it will have the widest distribution to the people you have as contacts. The interesting feature is that in Diaspora it can be asymmetrical, that is, you may have someone listed as a Friend, and they might have you listed as a Work contact. That is interesting because of how information is shared by selecting aspects. If you really want it to go to everyone, though you need to select Public on your posts. If you do this, it is a good idea to use one of the hashtags so your post only goes to people who choose to follow that hashtag.
You probably should do a little to fill out your profile if you want to connect with more people. You can upload a picture (which will appear on your posts, but is optional), post some hashtags on your interests, and make privacy selections. One interesting one is the NSFW setting. You can make your posts by default NSFW if that is your wish. As the site says:
“NSFW (“not safe for work”) is diaspora*’s self-governing community standard for content which may not be suitable to view while at work. If you plan to share such material frequently, please check this option so that everything you share will be hidden from people’s streams unless they choose to view them.”
One interesting feature Diaspora has is the ability to connect your Diaspora account to Tumblr, Twitter, or WordPress. This has to be set up by the pod you join, and not all pods offer it, so check if this is important to you. In my case, I had no interest in doing this, so that fact that my pod (haxxors.com) does not offer this is fine with me. To access this, click on your profile, settings, services, and you will see those options if they are available.
I hope this has given you some idea of what to expect if you join Diaspora. I think it is a smaller community than you may be used to, but that is not a bad thing if it means you can be a little more selective. I doubt it will ever be the place to share photos with your family, though. It is just a little harder to do than Facebook, darn it.
Listen to the audio version of this post on Hacker Public Radio!