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On Diaspora’s Social Network, You Own Your Data

Sitting along Yankee Stadium’s third base line during New York University’s rainy graduation two years ago, Max Salzberg couldn’t focus. The phone in his pocket wouldn’t stop buzzing. With each notification, the NYU senior wiped water off the screen to read an e-mail saying yet another person had given money to Diaspora, the not-yet-even-a-startup he and three college buddies had hatched the month before. Buzz. Another donation. Another buzz. Over the course of the ceremony, Salzberg and his co-founders raised more than $10,000. Over the course of the day, $40,000 more.

A few weeks earlier, Salzberg and three friends from the computer science club—Daniel Grippi, Raphael Sofaer, and Ilya Zhitomirskiy—had posted a rambling three-minute video on the crowdfunding site Kickstarter. They wanted to raise $10,000 to create a new kind of social network, one that lets people, not companies, own their personal data. They were young. They thought it would take the summer.

he four had sent the link to friends and got their first donation from their faculty adviser. Several well-known open Internet advocates tweeted about the campaign, and in 12 days, the Diaspora guys had their 10 grand. And the money kept coming. A New York Times reporter called them for a midnight interview; an early morning photo shoot followed. Then, on the day before the May commencement, the four undergrads found themselves atop the Times home page. “It just blew up like crazy,” Grippi says.

Their timing was perfect. Facebook had just changed its privacy policy, telling members it would track personal data to third-party websites. There was an outcry from users alarmed that it could track them beyond their personal pages. Facebook had changed its privacy policy half a dozen times, each alteration a reminder of the grand bargain users have made with the world’s most popular social network. It lets them keep tabs on long-lost classmates, share vacation photos, and feel connected, all at no cost. In exchange, their profiles aren’t really theirs—every bit is owned by the company and used for its profit. To connect on Facebook, users have no choice but to consent to its policies, and on the eve of Facebook’s nearly $100 billion initial public offering, the commercial value of that choice is all the more clear: In 2011 the company earned $5.11 per user, primarily by serving up targeted ads. Nine hundred million people have implicitly decided that the trade-off is worth it.

Diaspora aimed to convince consumers otherwise. The founders envisioned a site that would function like a social network but would give users ownership of their data, taking exploitation out of the equation. You could store what you post on any server you want and then share it, delete it, or use it however you choose.

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2 years ago
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