There’s been a lot of hubbub about Facebook’s ongoing tone-deafness regarding privacy. As a result, there has also been a lot of hubbub about the Diaspora project, with both wildly optimistic projections of their success, as well as more skeptical assessments.
I’m skeptical about Diaspora specifically, because it reminds me a lot of an effort to take RealNetworks down a peg more than a decade ago. In 1999, the Free Expression Project was started to “help people distribute their content to other people without being beholden to any corporation”. A laudable goal, and one that earned them a fawning writeup on CNet News, which claimed that Real was under siege by these folks. The project never seemed to make it much further than a website with a few diagrams, and nothing that came even close to challenging the streaming media hegemony we enjoyed at the time. (I was at Real from 1996-2005)
However, that’s not really the whole story. What the fawning press coverage indicated was that there were a lot of people who wanted Real to be taken down a peg or two. I imagine that the CNet reporter was as skeptical as anyone about the ability of the Free Expression Project to deliver, but he wrote the story anyway because he knew that people would eat it up. He knew that story would generate traffic because people would see his headline, think “Thank GOD!”, and click through to read the story. He was probably right.
It ultimately wasn’t a ragtag band of open source developers that toppled Real’s dominant position, but rather a one-two punch from Microsoft then Macromedia/Adobe. Still, their job was made a lot easier by the prevailing mood. When we tried to rally the open source community a few years later, despite our success in landing deals with hardware vendors (which it appears they are still successful with), we didn’t get a lot of organic contribution. By then, MPlayer, GStreamer, Xine, VLC and other efforts were already underway, and contributors to those projects had little incentive to join forces with us at that point. The developers on those projects thought: “we can do this better, and why would we want to help Real anyway?”
Facebook has a pretty solid network lock-in going for them, so its not as though we’re about to witness a sudden collapse of their market position. However, they’ve got a serious problem with their brand, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Zuckerberg is in complete denial about it, preferring to think about the privacy controversy as a storm that will blow over soon enough. It’d be easy for the Facebook crew to believe that no one is going to be able to pull together all of the elements needed for head-to-head competition. I’m betting that’s not how it plays out. My guess is that someone like Twitter or Google figures out how to add just enough functionality that many more people feel comfortable giving up on Facebook. Moreover, if I were going into competition with Facebook, I think I’d try to turn their strength into a weakness. For example, for many younger people, a network not overrun with parents, grandparents and extended relatives might just be a selling point.
I’m not deleting my Facebook account anytime soon, but I know I don’t need everything Facebook currently offers.