Activity Workshop

Murmur - Comparison with Diaspora

This page gives some thoughts and comments on the incredible media hypestorm surrounding the four young students and their "Diaspora" project. For more information see their bare web presence at

Funding and hype

I am one of those who really just don't get this. In less than a month, over 3000 people have pledged a total of over 140 thousand US dollars, to support this brand new project, even though many other far more realistic and solid projects exist with actual working code. Instead of supporting the developers who are already developing and building on their foundations to develop great, free, open-source code, for free, thousands of people have jumped to financially support a group of four students with little experience and apparently next to no plans how to proceed. According to their web pages, just about the only experience they have is "building a Makerbot" although the success of that venture isn't made clear.

I'm not sure how much the people who have donated realize about what's already out there. How would they react if the diaspora guys just take one of the existing projects and adapt it a little? And take 140 thousand dollars for the pleasure? The reaction will probably not be positive, we know how the media love to build things up and then knock them down again.

And what if they don't just take all the hard work of others? Won't there then be criticism that they've wasted time reinventing stuff and that they should have built upon the open source software of others? Now that they've got so much press coverage, I don't think it will be easy for them to emerge from this summer without hefty criticism on one side or the other. Or both.

For sure they have some fantastic temporary fame, it'll look fantastic on their CVs and will undoubtedly help them towards their first job, but there is now a huge pressure on their 19-to-22-year-old shoulders.

Some people work on open source software for free, because they're interested, motivated, dedicated, whatever. These guys have considered their options and decided that they need 10 thousand dollars to hold them through the summer while they work on this project. That's fine. But what do they do now that close to FIFTEEN times their initial forecast has been raised? How will the extra tens of thousands of dollars help them? Will it let them code more quickly? No. Will it help them code more efficiently? No. You have four guys, three months, and there is only so much pizza and cola that you can spend money on during this time. So what is the benefit of all the extra money? It means that the project has now mutated wildly beyond their expectations, and has grown into something much bigger. Can they cope? Will they get chance to spend the summer coding, as they wanted, or will they spend it all dealing with financial and legal management, designing their promised stickers and T-shirts for the backers, and determining what to do with all that cash? Maybe they'll need to employ a publicity manager and an email answerer.

Meanwhile, all the other dedicated coders who have been busy working on their carefully established projects without 6-figure cash injections, will continue to design and develop their tools further, comfortably away from the media spotlight.

Update: The total pledged has now passed 170 thousand dollars, and is unfathomably still rising. At this point you have to wonder why our four inexperienced students haven't closed the pledging. Do they really want more money pledged? Originally, they estimated how much money they would need, and came up with a figure of ten thousand. The pledge total reached ten thousand, but they didn't close the pledging. They didn't close it when it passed double their requirements. Not even at ten times what they thought they'd need. Is this just greed letting the pledges rack up towards twenty times their requirements, or do they not see that their hype is getting out of control?

What are now the realistic end-scenarios for this project? With 170 thousand dollars on the line, one scenario (which the authors presumably hoped for originally) is definitely not going to happen, and that is this: at the end of the project's life (after 3 months of very hard work), the project is a success, the people who donated money are happy, and the project gets much deserved attention and congratulation. No way on earth is that happening now, the expectations are just too great. What's now far more likely is that after 3 months, the people who pledged the equivalent of several luxury cars to these students, look at the results of all those late nights and say "is that it?". Disaster looms. If they'd kept things small, they could have delivered what they'd promised.

The four students have also given themselves a rather tight deadline to deliver everything that they've promised. And it sounds like it's a hard deadline too, because they've got other cool stuff to do when college restarts. When you have a fixed, immovable deadline, that means you've got soft, squidgy deliverable requirements, and that will inevitably mean that people don't get what they want. What do the people who pledged money want, anyway? What do they think they're going to get? Something which kills Facebook, that's all they know, and at the end of the Summer, Facebook won't be dead and you can bet that not every pledger is going to have set up their own PHP server to run their diaspora "seed".

As for the name, apparently it's pronounced "dye ASS por uh", not as I thought "dya SPORE uh", but anyway. According to the dictionary it means something like "forced exile", ie people who are forced to leave where they were all together (and presumably happy, otherwise they wouldn't have been forced to leave), and become scattered in other, disparate, places. So the important concept is not where they go to, just where they've been forced to leave. I'm not sure if this an intentional statement on forcing people to leave the current social networks where they are, and scattering them around to a variety of other alternative solutions, but if so that's a terrible concept from which to start.

OK, so now they've got 170 thousand dollars pledged, what can they do with it? Probably the best way to get value-for-money is to recruit some experts to do the coding for them. Quality code, and quickly, is what they need, and quality design decisions. That's not a lot of time from an expert consultant, but that's better than poor code and lots of money left at the end of 3 months. So that turns our four plucky heroes from code warriors elbow-deep in development of radical code, into outsourcers, responsible only for recruitment and project management. Ok, so are they the best four people to choose to perform those tasks of overseeing an intensive project? Maybe they need to outsource the recruitment and project management too. And the legal and financial affairs, obviously. So what will they end up doing? The scale of the pledged money takes away their whole role in the thing.

Update: The total finally reached over 200 thousand dollars, and it still just seems like vapourware. Very expensive vapourware though.

Security problems

Diaspora's main selling point is their security. They're promoting their project on the basis that their security model is better and more trustworthy than that of Facebook. So when they release their first ever code snapshot, it would be advisable to show to everyone just how much better Diaspora's security is than Facebook's, right? Right?

So the first "developer preview" release, which is advertised as pre-pre-alpha, was given to the public in September 2010, and the open-source vultures swooped eagerly for their first glimpse. And what did they find? Terrible, amateur mistakes and oversights going to the core of the code. Oh dear. For those who expressed concern that maybe four unknown, inexperienced students had been plunged out of their depth here, here was horrifying confirmation. One of the best, most articulate explanations of just how much was wrong, was given by Patrick at kalzumeus:Security Lessons Learned From The Diaspora Launch. Which was of course immediately picked up and debated on a slashdot thread.

So they've certainly got attention, but begging for volunteer help to fix their amateurish problems, after many of those same open source people have (unwittingly?) donated more than 200 thousand dollars to these four students, is coming at it from entirely the wrong angle. What people will very soon start to ask is, "where did all the money go?".

In the meantime, will the hype and perhaps resulting disappointment over Diaspora actually hinder the acceptance of the other open-source social network projects? Will any further attempt just be subject to the criticism of "just another Diaspora"?