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Social networking junkie: Diaspora

As promised, today I’ll be talking about Diaspora, a social thingy with a philosophy of privacy and security.

This philosophy is first apparent by the fact that it uses https by default instead of the usual http. Speaking as someone who’s gone through all his social sites and set them to use encryption whenever possible, I really appreciate this.

Incidentally, most sites default to no encryption, with an option to use when available. Personally, I think “use when available” should be default, and there should also be an option to simply reject unsecured connections. I kinda suspect that if governments weren’t so hung up on the idea of spying on their people, the internet as a whole would be almost completely encrypted by now.

Back to the subject at hand, Diaspora connects nicely to Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr, and gives you options to send your posts to any combination of them with handy little buttons next to the text-box, along with a button to make your post visible to the general public. There are also buttons to control which “Aspects” you are posting to.

The aspect concept needs some explanation. When you connect to someone you organize them into one or more “aspects”, they work a lot like the contact groups in Gmail. By default you have “Family” and “Work”, and adding new ones is trivially easy. When you make a post you can select each aspect you want it posted to, or just click the “All Aspects” button to send to all of them, or In keeping with their ideals of privacy, Diaspora doesn’t tell people which or how many aspects you’ve placed them in, only that you’ve “started sharing” with them. In a way it feels backwards, most social networking sites let you say whom you want to listen to, this one it’s whom you want to talk to.

I don’t know how well that would hold up to large groups of people. In particular I’m thinking of people on Twitter who have over a million followers. Wil Wheaton might have trouble using this service if his 1.8 million tweeps wanted to share with him. I also feel it needs a way to “follow” someone, so that you’re keeping track of the posts they mark public without them having to add you to an aspect. In fairness that feature may exist, though I haven’t found it yet.

And perhaps that’s looking at it the wrong way, because it’s not Twitter and isn’t trying to be. It feels more intimate that most social sites, less of a broadcasting platform. I’m perfectly happy if it does its own thing, but I’m not sure what its own thing is yet and wouldn’t be surprised if the developers only have a hazy idea themselves at this point.

Diaspora is still in the Alpha stage of development, so I don’t want to judge it too harshly. It has some neat ideas, but what I mostly use it for right now is the connection to other social networks and the bookmarklet. It is a very convenient way to send a link to Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr all at once. Given time & development and the right amount of publicity it might manage to rival Facebook, but right now it has a long way to go.

It feels like it’s alpha, not just in the spartan interface but in the options available and also little things like how new notifications don’t show up until you refresh the page. Since it’s apparently been active for over a year now I’m assuming that most of the work done has been to the guts of the system, behind the scenes. Which would fit in with what little I know of the people behind it. But again, these weak spots are expected and normal in alpha and it wouldn’t be fair to complain that the homepage isn’t shiny enough when they’re still working on the API.

Overall, it’s really too soon to tell with this one. I’ll just have to wait and see how quickly it improves and what it turns into.

One last thing, Diaspora is a decentralized, distributed network in a very well done, transparent way. The unit of division is called a “Pod”, which matters when you sign up but seems invisible while you’re using it. Although there are pods that don’t require an invitation, the main joindiaspora pod does. I have ten invites and will happily send one to anybody who asks in the comments.

That’s all for now, I’ll see you next time!

Things I learned joining Tumblr

Last night I made a Tumblr thingy. I don’t actually know what half these social networking things should be called, which probably means I’m getting old or something. Anyways it looks like a sort of cross between Twitter & Facebook with a healthy dose of blog that’s set up to share damn near everything. I mean, it has actual predefined templates for posting quotes and chat logs among many others. I’m sure it won’t be long before someone invents something that Tumblr’s not prepared to share for you, but right now I can’t think of anything. Naturally, it’s filled with the most vapid, boring, pointless crap you can imagine. (No, even worse than this blog!)

Lately I’ve been joining social networks out of a sort of weird inertia, like I’m trying to dominate the web by sheer force of personality. (Stop laughing) So it’s unlikely that I’ll be using it to its fullest, but the future’s not yet written, perhaps I’ll decide that Tumblr is what I need and all other sites will take a back seat. (Poppycock! You’ll always be first in my heart, WordPress!)

Since I’m awake, (and my word-quota’s above five thousand again) I may as well discuss the things I learned setting up Tumblr.

While I was poking around for people to follow, just sort of browsing through the categories, I noticed that when I was looking at sites listed as “Political” there’s absolutely no trust there. I don’t just mean on Tumblr, either. Seems like anything that openly discusses politics is automatically viewed with suspicion by me. Claims of impartiality are sneered at instinctively. The only way I’d trust one now is if I kept careful track of it for a while and did some fact-checking & other homework, and who has time for that? Well, me, probably, but I’d rather spend it biking.

The politics sites are at least understandable, as many openly have an agenda. What was really depressing was when I got to the “News” sites and had the same reaction. I think I may be getting cynical. Actually I kind of hope that I’m getting cynical, the idea that such feelings are fully justified has implications that make me uncomfortable.

While I was reading the Privacy Policy (Yeah, I usually actually read those.) I noticed a bit that illustrates very well why my rather awesome pseudonym has more of an internet presence than my real name. I’ll just quote it directly:

“in some cases we may choose to buy or sell assets. In these types of transactions, user information is typically one of the business assets that is transferred. Moreover, if Tumblr or substantially all of its assets were acquired, or in the unlikely event that Tumblr goes out of business or enters bankruptcy, user information would be one of the assets that is transferred or acquired by a third party. You acknowledge that such transfers may occur, and that any acquiror of Tumblr may continue to use your personal and non-personal information only as set forth in this policy.”

I give them credit for being up front about that, and I appreciate the last clause that I quoted there. Things is, I don’t know how binding that really is. Even if the law very strictly states that people who buy databases, who never entered into any agreement with the people whose info is in those databases, must abide by the terms agreed to in the original policy, how enforceable is that? If, say, a spam company buys up a database and spams the hell out of every poor soul that’s in it, how will they ever be brought to account? It seems more like a civil matter than a criminal one, which means the victims must bring suit themselves. How will they know that such a contract was violated? spammers aren’t known for being up-front about their activities, (especially since that one was beaten to death by an angry mob in Russia a few years back.) and corporations rise and fall, and get bought and sold, and collapse and are parted out in auctions constantly. Even if all the facts are clear, that the “acquiror” really seriously broke the rules, how will anyone ever trace the events so that they know which spammer, with what database, that was bound by what contracts so that they can bring suit in the first place?

I’m just not seeing much incentive for the people buying the database to play by the rules, here.

I’d love to see a privacy policy that says something along the lines of “if the company goes bankrupt or otherwise becomes defunct, all personal information will be deleted” but as I understand it that would be actually illegal. It’s considered destroying a corporate asset which should be auctioned off for the benefit of the creditors. I wonder if one could start a non-profit to buy up and destroy such databases. Seems like a public benefit to me.

So here we are. I’ll mess around with this Tumblr thing and see if it’s worth using for itself or just becomes another clone of something else I actually use, like Google Buzz has. It has an option that really intrigues me: The ability to call in from your telephone to make “Audio posts.” My best guess is that an audio post is like a podcast, which is pretty cool. I set that up really quick, but couldn’t think of anything to talk about. I guess I could have said all this, but what would be the point of announcing I have a Tumblr on, you know, Tumblr?

Well, that’s all for now. Tune into tomorrow when I continue my social media junkie phase with Diaspora!

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