What Diaspora (and everybody else) can learn from Google+ (DRAFT)


Most people won’t have even heard of it. Diaspora is an up and coming social network which is getting a lot more attention in some circles in the wake of Google+’s ‘real names’ policy.

Users are climbing on board after being tipped off that there’s a network just like Google+, only without having anything to do with Google, where you can be who you want to be, how you want to be, and still retain full ownership of everything you put there.

— Rebecca Baker, Diaspora still trying to reinvent social networks with open source, TechEye

Sounds great!  And while the Diaspora team still hasn’t sent out invites to the thousands of people who have signed up, some “pods” allow open signups.  So I set up a profile on http://diasp.org to check it out … and my, it looked familiar.

This weekend I received an invitation through Facebook to join Diaspora. I had tried to join Diaspora last year when I learned about their Kickstarter success while writing my book on crowdsourcing, but I couldn’t get in. So of course I was curious and went immediately to sign up.

And then I was puzzled. Diaspora looked just like…Google+. Or did Google+ look just like Diaspora?

Aliza Sherman, Google+ meet Diaspora – or maybe you know them already?

Yeah really.  Dan Tynan, in Will the real anti-Facebook please stand up?, comments that “Given that G+ emerged some seven months after Diaspora went public, I’m guessing Google was taking notes.”  Sure, the basic idea of having Aspects (in Diaspora) or Circles (in Google+) to organize your acquaintances isn’t new,* but G+’s web layout sure looks a lot like Diaspora’s.

What’s that they say about the sincerest form of flattery?

The opportunity’s still there …

Although we’ve been quiet for a while, it’s because we’ve been working hard, head-down.

We’re thrilled to say we’ve built the first stage of a new social web, one better than what’s out there today: a place where each of us owns our own information, where each person controls his or her own privacy, where no-one is a product, and where we all control our own destinies.

— Maxwell, Daniel, Ilya, Sarah, Yosem and Peter, Diaspora* is making a difference

It’s a crucial time for Diaspora right now, in a way that’s very hard for people who haven’t ever been involved in a startup to relate to.   Everybody expected progress to be more rapid.   There are a lot of questions about security.  The team’s been so busy that communications haven’t been great (although they’ve improved recently, with Yosem Companys taking on the role as Diaspora’s “chief evangelist”).   The money’s run out and they’re still in alpha. And now a major corporation with deep pockets is introducing a somewhat-similar product that’s much easier to use.  Gulp.

Looking at it more positively, though, Google+ has validated some of Diaspora’s key design choice.   The user base seems fairly enthusiastic despite the limitations of the alpha release.   And the nymwars and Eric Schmidt’s creepy characterization of G+ as an “identity system” underlines the need for the new social web the Diaspora team is talking about.  So the huge opportunity is still there.

And not just for Diaspora.  Sites like Hibe (whose Facets play the same role as Apects and Circles) are also seeing a lot of interest in the aftermath.  Wikipedia lists over 40 distributed social network projects — including Friendika, which inter-operates with Diaspora as well as Twitter, Facebook, and others.    Google+ presents a great learning opportunity for all of these projects.

Ten things to learn

If Google Plus has taught us anything …

Jon Mitchell, How Can Diaspora Help Us in a Facebook and Google Plus World?

Last week I started asking people what they thought Diaspora could learn from Google+.   Since then Kathy, Helena, Greg, Amy, Stephen, Gretchen, Dan, Paul, Andreas, David, Cindy, Geeky, powlsy, Drew, Terry, Sylvia, Edward, Anne, Hrafn, Shiyiya, Cavlec, Wiring, Madeleine, @PRC_Amber, @blakereid and many others came up with new suggestions and refined the list in discussions on Google+, Dreamwidth, Diaspora, and Twitter.  Thanks to everybody who got involved!

Over the course of the discussion, I took a couple of polls on Google+, and both times the same recommendation came out on top:

  • The estimated 40% of people online who prefer “screen names” or pseudonyms are a really good target audience right now. Geek Feminism’s excellent list of Who is harmed by a “Real Names” policy could be the basis of a great go-to-market strategy for Diaspora or any other privacy-friendly social network.

It’s a huge challenge for any new social network these days to attract an audience.  There are so many sites out there already … who has time for one more?  As so many early Google+ users found, it can be very hard to get your friends and relatives to try another site if they’re basically happy with their Facebook experience.   So it makes sense to start by working with people whose needs aren’t getting met today.  As the battle over Google’s naming policy so clearly showed, there are a lot of us out there — and we’re not happy.

Diaspora, or any other site, has a great chance to reach out to these audiences and involve them in the design and deployment of the software.  What are the key “use cases”?  What will it take to create an environment that’s waaaaay better than anything else out there for women, LGBTQs, people with disabilities, activists, whistleblowers, health professionals, and everybody else who’s harmed by Google’s and Facebook’s “real names” policy?  And how to get early adoption in the various communities to set up a virtuous cycle where feedback leads to an improved product leads to broader use?

Several of the other recommendations can help make Diaspora more attractive to this “sweet spot” audience — and the first two of these are areas where the competition is weak.

  • Good moderation tools (ranging from fine-grained per thread controls to a “block” that really works) are essential.  Google+’s are mediocre.  Diaspora’s are virtually non-existent.
  • The new user experience is crucial; and setting up a “suggested users list” isn’t likely to work out well.  Instead, why not try something more community-oriented like the “welcoming committee” idea that Ardith Goodwin et. al. are experimenting with on Google+?
  • Different people prefer different was of interacting with the system — dense information vs white space; text-heavy vs. image-heavy; comments expanded or contracted by default; and so on.  Fortunately, a lot of creative people want to customize the user experience.  Good instructions for writing Firefox, Chrome, and other browser extensions can engage developers which in turn helps users.
  • Phones matter. Many people use phones more than desktop or laptop computers.  Even more importantly, many people have phones but don’t have computers.   It’s great that work on the Android app has started, but as of now Diaspora still isn’t usable via mobile browsers.

And here are several more suggestions  transition still needs work, sorry

  • Streams get overloaded quickly, so better circle management (combining them, “venn diagrams”), filtering and notification controls — along with some kind of collapsing multiple reshares of the same post — are vital.
  • People want the ability to make any field on their profile private.   Diaspora gives the user less control here than Google+ — or for that matter Facebook.  And speaking of profiles, it would be great to have something much richer, with room for links, photos, and formatted text.
  • It’s a big advantage for Diaspora that unlike Google+ you can install it on their own servers. But the installation needs to be as easy as WordPress,** and minimize dependencies.
  • For Diaspora to succeed, it has to involve the community.  Regular communications, and participation by team members and community managers, makes a huge difference.  The steady stream of Google+ announcements kept people informed and pumped up the enthusiasm; Natalie Villalobos and her team have done a great job  working with the community — and so did the other Googler’s who got involved in the early days.  With more and more invitations going out and pods getting set up, now’s a perfect time to add a community manager (or equivalent position) and for the whole team to shift to a community focus.

Dynamite conclusion here, still needed!

* cites needed

** Cindy Brown suggested WordPress as a model on G+; Dan PatTerson goes into more detail in a comment on Read Write Web