Here it is!
Rather than address Diaspora’s design directly, what I’ll do instead is outline how I’d go about starting a project like Diaspora myself, with the same general goals in mind.
Any good project has to have a name, and preferably one that regular Americans, as the lowest common denominator, might pronounce correctly. It also helps not to include random special characters for no apparent reason (other than to confuse search engines perhaps).
Since I’m not feeling inspired today, I’ll just steal the fictional name “Gink” (from the college humor parody video on social networking –very funny stuff!). Gink would have been a pretty good name for a real social-network; easy to remember, catchy, fun, and unlikely to be mispronounced… it also makes a good verb (which is one of Google’s marketing strengths too). As a word, Gink does have some definitions already, but none seem so well entrenched yet that we couldn’t usurp it for ourselves.
Defining the Mission:
There are two ways to go about Gink.
Creating fantastic social-networking software can be the mission. Here the software is your focus, and the network a by-product of success. In the wild, it would (hopefully) evolve organically and displace entrenched social-networks through just sheer awesomeness. This seems to be the angle the Diaspora is taking, and it is a viable one –Linux started out like this.
Me though, I’d set a more explicit mission. My primary goal would be to create the social-network everyone wants to use; the one that empowers users. The software would exist only as a means to achieve that mission.
Security, Privacy and Control – Organization and Politics:
Giving the users a sense of ownership of their data and control over their privacy is the driving factor for Diaspora’s public interest, and is central to its design. Even with Gink’s slightly modified mission, this still remains the primary requirement.
So let’s start by solving this problem with Gink…
As I mentioned in my last post, these requirements have been misunderstood by the Diaspora team. Users want control over how their data is used, and a sense of ownership. They want a binding promise that the system will not abuse their privacy. The part Diaspora misunderstands is that users have no interest in taking responsibility for the technical details themselves. They don’t want to manage infrastructure, nor keep up with the data themselves.
At heart, this is a just a trust issue. The requirement is political, and political requirements are best solved through political architectures, not technical ones.
Since our team has the mission of providing a social-network, not just to develop software; the easiest way to handle this whole trust thing is by establishing a formal non-profit organization to oversee the network itself.
It is this organization to which I’d give the name “Gink”.
The org can make enough promises in its charter, sign-up policies, etc. to solve the trust issues. The promises would take lawyer time to word up, but the highlights would be:
- The system would not be a vehicle for advertisers; an ad-free network.
- Users would have full control of their own personal data and how it used
- Users would have the ability to examine all data the system collected about them (down to the logs) at any time.
- The network would not censor user generated content.
- The network would not be able to sell or disclose personal data (individually, or in aggregate) to 3rd parties.
- Any non-personal data that may be shared would be public to all.
- A prohibition against the transfer of ownership of the data –the network cannot be bought out by someone else who then changes the rules.
- These basic promises would be unalterable after the fact; none of that “we reserve the right to screw you with 30 days written notice” trickery.
There are probably several other promises to make too, but being a non-profit organization and having made our policy plain, unalterable and user-centric, we’ve pretty much solved the critical trust issues; and without any code at all.
All the code has to do is avoid leaking data all over the place.
The Gink organization would be chartered to oversee the network itself and steward the direction of the “official” branch of the software. It would also completely control the infrastructure of the network, though it need not necessarily own that infrastructure directly.
In my previous post, I also went into detail about my misgivings on Diaspora’s technical design. Having solved Gink’s trust issues, a fully distributed system of user operated peer-server nodes is unnecessary. Such a design would not advance Gink’s mission; which is just to provide a network of pure amazing!
Still though, a system like this will be very large, and a distributed architecture of some type is absolutely essential. We control the infrastructure ourselves though, so we can manage a lot more architectural diversity on the back-end.
I would not design a “do-everything” kind of distributed server, such as what Diaspora proposes. Instead, I’d break the system down into separate service roles; each having its own server design using whatever architecture best supports that particular role.
Why should my aggregation services be limited by constraints imposed by the data storage architecture?
I’m not going to go into specifics about the design here. We have not fleshed out the requirements enough to even begin thinking about more specific details yet.
While the Gink network is operated as a non-profit organization, there is no reason to develop the software through the same organization. There are several good reasons not too though. As non-profit, employees of the org would be limited in any income potential… Not that the org can’t pay them well, but there may be opportunities related to the software beyond just the Gink network itself. Separating the development from the non-profit would allow the development team to capitalize on other opportunities without unnecessary restrictions.
So I’d develop the software though a different organization, which we’ll call “Ginkworks” for lack of a better name. Ginkworks would produce open, royalty-free specs for the protocols, APIs, etc. of the Gink network. It would then develop an open source reference implementation of those specs.
The version of the software in use on the Gink network itself doesn’t have to be the same internally as the reference implementation. There are cases where the network, due to practical realities, might need different or extended internal implementations… as long as it conforms to the open specs, this should be allowed where needed.
This is how Google runs projects like Wave, and Microsoft did much the same with the .NET CLR and C# languages. This strategy seems to work quite well, allowing each organization to use the best political architecture to meet their different requirements in much the same way as our system architecture does.
Driving User Adoption:
In order to be successful, we need to get users to switch to using our network as their primary social networking tool. This is the hardest part of the entire plan by far. It isn’t enough to just enable users to do what they can do on other networks. You have to give them reasons beyond that, or they will just stay where they are comfortable.
This is the make or break requirement, and will decide the priorities and focus for the rest of the project’s design. The focus would be on user features, and all back-end considerations must align to these.
I can identify four major areas of user feature enhancement that could generate the needed attractiveness for user switch-over. There are probably others, but these are the ones that stand out to me.
Here Diaspora has the right idea. To get users on the system, you have will have let them bring their established networks with them. They aren’t going to give up existing communities that they’ve spent years building on other sites. So the system must aggregate the user’s other online identities, and allow them to participate across multiple networks simultaneously.
You can see the general shape of this already, especially in the smart-phone market, with social aggregator apps, but there is a lot more that needs to be done in this area.
The interoperation needs to be dumb-ass simple; so intuitive, seamless and effortless that cross participation appears to just happen by pure-fucking-magic (for you non-programmer types, this is a real technical term).
This interoperation needs to be bi-directional and highly cooperative, not just a read-only aggregation. For example, if users like flickr better than gink’s own photo systems, let them use flickr through gink as if it were a native part of our system (as much as it is possible to do so, of course).
This will probably be the hardest of the technical challenges to meet since interoperation depends on the APIs of other networks, which are beyond our control and highly variable in their capabilities.
So far, the other social networks are providing mobile support as a secondary add-on service. Their mobile experience is limited to a sub-set of the network’s features. But with social networks in particular, mobile devices are fast becoming the primary means by which people interact.
I’d develop the entire system as if the primary clients were mobile devices, treating full desktop browsers as a secondary design consideration. There will still be a small set of features that just can’t be adapted to mobile (yet) of course, but these should be limited to admin and management functions where possible.
There are also some opportunities to provide features that leverage the unique strengths of mobile devices too. The most obvious of these are location services, and this is an area of opportunity that the competition seems to largely ignore (except Google).
Neglected Social Networks:
One of the bigger failing of the major social networks is that they all fail to recognize older social network technologies, many of which are quite well established.
Email is the most obvious one. Email is very much a form of social networking; and is the oldest such mainstream service still in existence. The existing social nets all treat email as a just an out-of-band notification channel for their own convenience. At best, they provide a poor-man’s “message” feature, but otherwise treat actual email like it were a plague (which it probably is).
But why duplicate, badly, email-like functionality in Gink when we can try to aggregate real email into our system? So I’d try to treat this as if it were just another social network users participate in.
Online forums are another neglected social network that needs to be pulled in, along with users’ blogs, if they have one.
I might not put much effort into real-time chat networks though. I’d have to investigate this area more myself to be sure how to handle it.
Non-Social Information Streams:
Social Networking, from the user’s point of view, is largely just a personalized information stream. But on most networks, one of the most popular sets of 3rd party add-on features are ones that bring in read-only subscriptions and news. Since we’re aggregating so much already, I’d want to subscription service aggregation to be a core, and first-class, feature set.
These four broad swaths of user-centric feature sets are things that might generate enough user acceptances to get them to switch. Of course, you also have to do a bang-up job on the expected feature sets as well.
So before I started on the deep technical nitty-gritty of the Gink back-end architecture, we’d flesh out as much about these user features as we can. Identify how these features might work, so we can ensure that we build a framework that directly addresses the technical needs of our feature set.
And that’s how I’d go about starting a social networking project.