The Diaspora Project: Grassroots Funding for an Alternative to Facebook

sky_msc_007Much of the news around social media lately has involved Facebook, as concerns surrounding the site's privacy policies have remained in news headlines. With approaching 500 million users, however, Facebook is a giant force, and it remains to be seen if this negative publicity will have any impact - either on the site's policies or the size of its user-base.

Despite Facebook's ubiquity, there have long been other social networks that have vied to replace, or at least operate in the same milieu. And the grumblings in the media and among users have made this a good time for these alternatives to come forward.

One project in particular seems to have received a substantial amount of attention: the Diaspora Project. The brainchild of four NYU students, Diaspora aims to be a distributed, open-source social network.

Arguably, under normal circumstance, an idea like that, proposed by four unknown college student would not necessarily get much attention. But there are two interesting forces that helped propel them and their project into the spotlight.

A Good Idea and a Good Story: Interested in developing an alternative to the social media site, Dan Grippi (age 21), Max Salzberg (age 22), Raphael Sofaer (age 19), and Ilya Zhitomirskiy (age 20) wanted to build a social network that didn't acquiesce to the same data control as Facebook. They wanted their project to be open source, meaning they would share the code so that other developers could implement and improve it. They also wanted the social network to be distributed, that is, it would be run via the computers of subscribers rather than by servers housed in one location and owned by a single company. Data would be portable. In other words, you could control your data and move it easily in and out of the system. And your data could be kept private.

In order to support their design and coding work, they decided decided to post their project idea to Kickstarter, an online site that allows creatives to receive small donations to support their endeavors. The four students gave themselves 39 days to raise $10,000. They met that goal within twelve days. And then, a few days later the New York Times ran the story titled "Four Nerds and a Cry to Arms Against Facebook," attention skyrocketed. To date, they have raised over $150,000.

Grassroots Funding: It's a good story, and a timely one. But while sometimes this sort of media attention may provide a startup a funding offer from a major investment source, in the case of Diaspora, they opted for a grassroots funding effort. The Kickstarter site allows projects to accept a range of donation sizes, from small to large - from one dollar to thousands. In the case of Diaspora, over 2000 people donated $25. Around 1000 donated $5. While there were several large donors, the project did not rely on a small number of large investments to fund the project, but instead gathered small donations from a large number of people.

Diaspora is working on their alternative network now, although it's unknown what if any impact this will have on Facebook in the long run. Nonetheless, this sudden grassroots interest in and funding of an alternative, open source site marks an interesting juncture in social media.