The Diaspora guys, four college kids turned chief engineers of the most-talked-about social networking start-up this year, get a lot of friend requests. Sometimes fans just show up at their office, uninvited, and ask to work with them. Every now and then, someone recognizes them in public, which freaks them out. On the day they moved into their current office in San Francisco, a commuter stopped them on the subway and commanded, "Go get 'em, guys! Kill Facebook!"
Journalists and bloggers have called Diaspora "the Facebook killer," "the Facebook rival," "the anti-Facebook," "Facebook's challenger," and "another Facebook wannabe." They have speculated about whether Diaspora is better than Facebook, whether Facebook will try to buy Diaspora, and whether Diaspora could "knock Facebook off its perch."
The guys, however, don't see themselves as competition. After all, Diaspora is a rookie company; its software is buggy and crash prone, and although the company tries to solve the biggest problem with Facebook by giving users better control over their private data, its site looks and acts like a vacant, amateur imitation.
Besides, the guys insist, they're not aiming to replace Facebook with "yet another social network." Rather, they're taking a stab at reengineering the way online socializing works by building an entire network of networks from the ground up. They hope that in the process they will help promote standards that other social sites—such as Digg, LinkedIn, Google Buzz, and perhaps one day even Facebook—will use to bridge their services. They imagine that during the next decade, the Web will evolve from a sea of social networking islands into what many developers are calling the federated social Web—one that lets you choose your networking provider, just as you now choose your e-mail provider, and yet still connect with friends who use other services.
Such a Web may be a distant, idealistic vision, but it's not Diaspora's alone. Many programmers and social media thinkers, including some at other start-ups, at universities, and at big companies such as Google, Mozilla, and Germany's Vodafone, have been working to develop open standards for a federated social Web since around the time "The Facebook" was a profile directory for Harvard students. They believe that such a Web is not only possible but also preferable. "If I couldn't e-mail people who don't share the same domain as me, that would be pretty stupid," remarks Joseph Smarr, a social Web engineer at Google. "But that's exactly the way social networks work today, and that's broken and should be fixed."
Of course, Google has a lot to gain if Diaspora can fix social networking. The search giant has tried to stop Facebook from encroaching on its share of online advertising revenue by offering its own networking services, including Lively (discontinued), Orkut (thriving only in Brazil), Buzz (trashed for its privacy flaws), and Wave (passed on to Apache). But so far, Google has failed to make anything as wildly popular as Facebook.
As far as the guys know, no prominent Googlers have invested money in Diaspora, but they have written most of their code using Google-engineered protocols. And if they can work out the kinks in their system and turn a profit, says Rob Enderle, an Internet technology analyst and president of the Enderle Group, in San Jose, Calif., "their success will showcase to the bigger players that if you work with Google, you too can be profitable, and you can pick up users more quickly."
Diaspora itself may not be a threat to Facebook. But a federated social Web built on Google technologies, Enderle says, "would destroy Facebook's value and certainly its power on the network." If Google, starting with small players such as Diaspora, can plant the seeds of a federation and cultivate a network of many social services that is richer, more addictive, and more ubiquitous than Facebook, "it would create an environment wherein Facebook can't be the next Google," Enderle says.