May 18, 2010

How Diaspora can succeed: Model real life

Whether they are cursed or simply in need of some sound advice, the four idealists at the helm of the Diaspora project have a lot of work ahead of them. The biggest question they face, though, is how to architect the system. Not just from a technical perspective, but from a social perspective. If they simply copy Facebook’s model, they probably won’t get far. The key is to identify what’s wrong with the design of social networking as we know it, and then to find a better way.

Life and SQL tables

The practical problem with every major social networking site is that its network model compresses our complex social circles into simple, one-dimensional tables. Your friends are melted and frapped into a homogenous quantity, and every post you make is broadcast to all of them, regardless of the context in which you relate to them in person. This is a problem for a variety of reasons: Content shared between members of one social group is generally irrelevant to those outside it, creating noise, and when a group’s exchanges require any degree of confidence or discretion, unintended overlap causes obvious problems.

To be fair, Facebook has addressed this—in its usual labyrinthine fashion. You can create groups of friends, and in an update made last year, you can choose privacy settings for each post you make if you’re willing to click through enough menus each time. Unfortunately, its cumbersome design limits its use.

The usefulness of Facebook’s friend grouping feature is perhaps most severely impaired, though, simply by its existence as a grafted-on user setting and not as a pattern of the system’s underlying architecture. This is the fundamental change Diaspora needs to make: Don’t build around a buddy list. Build around real life. We go to school, the office, the church, the bar, home, a friend’s home, and there’s a different crowd at each place. Sometimes they overlap, much of the time they don’t. Build Diaspora to fit that reality, not to fit a SQL table.

Privacy is precision

This won’t be easy. Precedent to build on will be in short supply. You won’t be able to get by with the hard-to-kick FOSS habit of copy-the-leader. You need to balance separation and overlap, to elegantly give users control over who they’re speaking to, and to cast their voice as wide or as narrow as they feel is appropriate.

I’ll gladly throw a UI suggestion into the ring, though. Put groups front-and-center. Think of them like tabs, if you must; these should form the solid walls between social circles, and whenever you’re viewing a group, your posts should go exclusively to that group. But hey, this is social networking—make them booleans, so you can view groups together. Add something like Twitter’s retweet functionality so you can shuttle messages quickly between groups, sharing freely but precisely. There’s nothing wrong with being open, as long as the user decides what “open” means.

The federated nature of Diaspora seems a perfect fit for the first successful, real-life social networking platform. A critical eye toward not just Facebook’s practices but the state of social networking itself will be what separates Diaspora from the also-rans.