Rise of the Facebook-Killers

At the pinnacle of the social network's success, its critics are busy building its replacements

A few months after Moglen's speech, the group launched a Kickstarter campaign for a project they called Diaspora*. Diaspora* would be everything Moglen had called for: open-source, respectful of privacy, and controlled by users. Instead of routing all exchanges through a central clearinghouse, Diaspora* users would set up their own nodes, storing their information locally.

The team members quickly raised more than $200,000, plenty to fund a summer in San Francisco and to build the skeleton of their new social network. That fall, they released a "pre-alpha" version, soliciting feedback from other developers. There was plenty of criticism, but most of it was constructive. A year later, last November, the team released a redesigned version that patched the earlier security holes and included a host of new features, many familiar for users of Facebook and Twitter: hashtags, status updates, and "Like" buttons.

Just days later, Zhitomirskiy died suddenly, in what a source close to the company told CNNMoney was a suicide. The loss of Zhitomirskiy—often described as the most idealistic and privacy-conscious member of the group—was a devastating setback, but Diaspora* continues.

A longtime champion of the free-software movement, Columbia Law School professor Eben Moglen predicts Facebook will be extinct in a matter of months.
Emily Berl
A longtime champion of the free-software movement, Columbia Law School professor Eben Moglen predicts Facebook will be extinct in a matter of months.
An activist and programmer, Sam Boyer is helping to build the Federated General Assembly, a decentralized network designed for the Occupy movement.
Emily Berl
An activist and programmer, Sam Boyer is helping to build the Federated General Assembly, a decentralized network designed for the Occupy movement.

Early on, the team recognized that coding a distributed social network might actually be the easy part. It would be harder to persuade users to move from Facebook—the network where all their friends, (past, present, and future) already were—to their new, sparsely populated network.

Their solution was to make Diaspora* play well with others. Sign up for a Diaspora* account, and your posts can easily be imported into Tumblr, Twitter, and even Facebook. In the early stages of its use, Diaspora* can function as a social aggregator, bringing together feeds from various other platforms. The idea is that this lowers the barriers to joining the network, and as more of your friends join, you no longer need to bounce communications through Facebook. Instead, you can communicate directly, securely, and without running exchanges past the prying eyes of Zuckerberg and his business associates.

It probably shouldn't be surprising that another of the teams building an alternative social network is affiliated with the Occupy movement.

Ed Knutson, a software developer from Milwaukee, became instantly engaged with Occupy Wall Street when the movement first started garnering national headlines early last fall. As the movement spread, Knutson traveled to several East Coast occupations and met with teams to discuss the technology needs of the movement.

"We needed tools for people to communicate more directly, without having to all be in the same physical space," Knutson says. "A lot of what was happening was very ad hoc, different groups trying to talk to each other across Skype and Twitter. It wasn't working very well. We needed a platform where people from different occupations could cross-pollinate their ideas."

In October, a loose team of coders from across the country began collaborating to build that platform.

Knutson was also in touch with members of the Indignados, a Spanish movement that prefigured Occupy Wall Street and served as an early model for the American movement. Together, they began to imagine a network that would leap national boundaries and allow different movements to share information, plans, and expertise. The resulting project, Global Square, overlaps significantly with a more Occupy-specific project called the Federated General Assembly—run largely out of New York by a team coordinated by Sam Boyer.

Boyer's activist roots date back to his student days at the University of Rochester, where he was active with the Student Trade Justice Campaign, part of the anti–World Trade Organization movement. In 2006, Boyer was a delegate to a meeting of the international coalition Our World Is Not for Sale, joining everyone including organizers from fishing communities in the Philippines to policy wonks from Geneva and Washington. During the meeting, Boyer realized that there was something fundamentally broken about how the group was talking to itself.

"Because so much of the communication was going on over e-mail, it tended to privilege one sort of people—the ones who had the time and means to spend a lot of time reading and sending e-mail," Boyer says. "It meant that the Western policy-oriented people had a much stronger voice than the activists actually on the ground. There was no way for people who didn't already have an encyclopedic knowledge of the issues to tap into all the collective knowledge. Basically, the architecture of communication was distorting the conversation."

So Boyer, who had no previous coding experience, decided to build a better system. He threw himself into computer engineering, taught himself the open-source content-management framework Drupal, and experimented with better ways for activists to communicate.

"I realized we needed a lot of different kinds of spaces: small-process spaces, big-process spaces, taking stuff that happens offline and finding ways to make it happen online."

By the time Occupy Wall Street had seized Zuccotti Park, Boyer was a well-known figure among Drupal developers, and he decided to leverage his experience and connections to build the occupiers a platform to help them talk to one another.

The result—the Federated General Assembly—won't receive its first provisional rollout for several months. But as with Diaspora*, early response even to just the idea has been overwhelming.

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