Saturday, May 15, 2010

There's more to running a railroad than just laying down tracks, you know (nine reasons that diaspora will struggle)

I have to say that although I don't have anything against Diaspora, there's a strong sense of dot-com naievety in the web site and the press reports that I've read. As someone once said in some movie I once saw sometime;

There's more to running a railroad than just laying down tracks, you know.*
Those of you who were around during the unfettered madness in the last stages of the dot-com boom should know better than simply to believe the hype here, and let me explain why.

Diaspora have nothing, they have some pledges of funding and apparently a bit of code that may or may not work.
Nothing bankable there, and no business model that I can see which will give any real investor even the promise of a return.
We've seen friends reunited fail to capitalise on the very similar oppportunity their idea created and the enthusiasm with which it was greeted, and that is because they chose to charge for parts of the service.
Anyone wanting to get into this space is going to have to burn through a lot of cash before they get a big enough audience to make money from by any indirect means, if they ever do.

If they've been pulling allnighters and sleeping under the desks their development methodology is unsustainable. I would consider myself to have failed in a big way if I had to ask someone to sleep under their desk, geeks need their beauty sleep if they're going to do a good job for you.
They're going to crash and burn if the don't fix that one. I know that some of the most sucessful dot coms have evolved from student's developing something on a shoe string, but they have largely been gamechangers.

Diaspora isn't a game changer. It is an evolutionary development of social networking.

They have a HUGE competitor in facebook. And potentially another in Google's OpenSocial. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde "To challenge one gorilla may be regarded as a misfortune. To challenge two looks like carelessness."

Privacy and security are not sexy, they won't sell this to normal consumers (c.f. industry insiders like ourselves) people like facebook, and don't really know or care about the the privacy issues.
You only have to read the comments on facebook's status update posts to realise that very many of their users have a very sketchy understanding (and thats me being flattering) of what the web is, never mind how it works.

Distributed is sexy, but only to sad geeks like you and me! The emphasis in "social network" is on social not network.
In practice this is going to manifest itself in questions like who will opeate a diaspora server? and how will I choose my diaspora provider?
Either that or there will only ever be one operator of diaspora, and the distributed thing will be obsolete from the start like so many internet technologies who's technical capabilities are sidelined by business and operational issues: The way we misuse "trust certificates" (I don't trust verisign, who the f**k are they?), they way that we don't use multi-hop SMTP because of spam, the way that theJ2EE servlet specification was never really adopted for anything other than http, the way that teleco's won't let us use our mobiles (cellphones) as modems, but they will sell us dongles.

They don't appear to own the domain name A small thing, but perhaps a glimpse at a lack of joined up thinking?

And the big one ... Someone has to persuade all of the people who are happy using other social networks that they need to be bothered using diaspora.
Now I know that we've seen people move from bebo and myspace to facebook, but that seems to have been driven by two factors, one is the fact that facebook's offering is different, its a slighly different service, the other is the demographic, facebook targets (or seems to) an older demographic, producing the perception that myspace and bebo are for kids...
When I was a child I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man I put away childish things.
...and that as facebook is more "grown up" it becomes cool to move your social network activity to facebook.
Where is the comparable hook that will attract people to diaspora? Privacy? give me a break!

The technology exists to create diaspora, but is there enough time?
It takes a lot more than a list of techical ideas to make a robust system. If all you needed was enthusiasm and an understanding of the technology most of us would be billionaires, and we know it!
Each one of their to-do's has to be implemented, that implementation will be beset with technical challenges.
Integrating them into a coherent single service adds a whole extra degree of complexity. This kind of development needs to be properly managed by people who understand the risks and know the trick of avoiding them.
Those people exist, I like to think I'm one of them, but the point is that their intervention will move the goal posts, and dilute the "purity" of the mission.

So, IMHO Diaspora may well be what the thinking geek would have liked facebook to be, but it is never going to replace it. Sorry, but there you go.

* (if you know what movie it is let me know!).


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