Disrupting incumbent technologies is hard, but people still try — and more power to them. Case in point, the news that Diaspora, the open-source and distributed social network that was once “going to disrupt Facebook,” is changing its structure. The service will be run by the community and the product will be changed by the community, with the central control over the software taken out of the hands of Diaspora.
This presents two very large problems for Diaspora. One, decentralized services, and especially social networks, rarely succeed. And two, it’s going to be doubly hard for Diaspora, since it has already faltered as a centralized project.
Regarding the first, Diaspora is still the same product today that it was yesterday. Yet, moving forward there is a dramatically different future in store for the service. Instead of being pushed forward by a centralized vision and with a command structure with the company at the center, the efforts will be pushed forward by the whims of the community.
This may make sense for Diaspora, because after all, it is a “distributed social network,” so being managed by a “distributed community” seems like a natural extension. Despite this nice parallel, Diaspora still has to deal with the realities of distributed projects that are taking on centralized services.
Looking at the history of this problem, there are a few examples of projects that took a similar tack and failed. For example, Google Wave, which was going to be a distributed project, only gently guided by Google, but run by the community. The project that was going to be the next wave in communications, with millions of dollars in backing and promotions across the Web. In spite of all this, though, it died.
The problem is that decentralized services have a much harder time tackling networking problems than centralized services. Sometimes its on the product development side, but sometimes its just the fact that there isn’t a person with a sign saying, “The buck stops here” in a decentralized service.
But most importantly, the key difference between a centralized and a decentralized service is that with a centralized service you only need to win over users, but with a decentralized service, you need to win over both users and hosts.
As Dan Wineman said last week in response to the call for alternative Twitter services, “The moral of the story is that the qualities that make Twitter interesting…are direct consequences of its centralized architecture. Without the centralization you can still have something interesting, but it’s a different thing.”
When asked whether or not App.net, the project that is aiming straight for Twitter, would run into the same problems that Diaspora did, seeing as both were billed as alternative social networks, founder Dalton Caldwell told me, “It’s the difference between a CD-ROM with Ubuntu burned on it and Amazon Web Services. Both of them could be used to setup a server environment, but what you do in practice with an Ubuntu CD-ROM vs AWS is very different.”
This statement goes a long ways towards highlighting the differences between a distributed and a centralized service. The product can still be great — most open source projects are decentralized, or loosely centralized — but that doesn’t mean they will win over the majority of users. And they rarely make money.
Which leads us to our second problem, which is simpler to understand. How will Diaspora ever make money and be financially solvent over the long term? If it couldn’t do it with a centralized structure, how will it ever succeed as a business when no one is in control?
Of course, it’s fine for the company to not make money. But its already gone the Kickstarter route, and it wouldn’t really work to tap the same well twice. Then there is the paid option, but since App.net swiftly captured the early mindshare (and wallets), it won’t be an easy sell.
Which leaves the Diaspora project without a central command structure, without financial incentives or motivations, and without a radically innovative project. If it succeeds, it will be beating incredibly long odds.
[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]