I'm a huge fan of social networking, and post regularly on Facebook, and on Twitter under the handle @yeurch. I think Facebook is a great tool for keeping up to date with people I know (or knew) in real life, while I find Twitter invaluable in finding out what's new and innovative in software development. But there are problems ...
When I contribute by posting to these services, there's one big gotcha ... I'm entrusting my content to a third party, and I no longer have 100% control over it. For example, if I upload photos or video to Facebook, they have a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content that I post. Every time you get one of those terms of service updates, this could change. You know, those legalese messages that tell you that if you disagree with the changes you can delete your account? The ones that no-one reads. Well, in those terms of service updates, Facebook have changed the ownership of content you post several times. For most of 2009, for example, Facebook claimed complete ownership of your content, for all time. It's important to me that I own my own content.
Remember too that when you aren't paying for something (like Facebook), someone is paying. The advertisers are paying and you, your friends and all your info are the product.
Facebook and Twitter (probably) aren't going to be around for ever. Remember when the "in place to be" was MySpace, or even Bebo? Like the inevitability of the changing of the seasons, social networking platforms seem to come and go. What if I wake up one morning and Facebook is gone? Who *really* has a backup of everything they've posted to Facebook? I'm putting a lot of trust in Facebook to look after my content. To protect myselft from this, I want to host my own content.
I have friends on Facebook, so to talk to them, I need a Facebook account. I have friends on Google+, so to talk to them, I need a Google+ account. I don't want to have to have my data in multiple "walled gardens". I don't want to have to post the same status update multiple times to different services. I want to be able to post my data once, and have it shared with everyone across different platforms.
There are thousands of email providers out there. Every ISP (probably) has their own mail servers, and so do most web hosting companies. There are also many other public offerings out there like GMail, Outlook.com and Yahoo! Mail. It doesn't matter that my good friend Joe Bloggs has his email with acmemailsolutions.com, I can still email him.
I own my own domain, and I can move it wherever I like. I've switched providers a few times and my email address follows me. Wouldn't it be great if social networking worked like that. If there were hundreds of different services available that I could entrust to look after my data, and crucially, like email, that they all interoperated seamlessly.
Diaspora is a free, open-source web application hosted on GitHub that implements a distributed social newtorking service. Installations of Diaspora form nodes (termed "pods") which make up the distributed Diaspora social network. The project's founders run their own pod, JoinDiaspora but there are dozens of others available. Join any pod, and you can interact with users on any Diaspora pod, anywhere in the world.
Because Diaspora is open source, with a bit of technical know-how, you can even run your own pod, and have your data on your own server forever.
Diaspora is still in its infancy, and may not yet be fully production-ready. I firmly believe that the web really needs a service like Diaspora. Perhaps more importantly, it needs an IETF published Internet Standard for the exchange of social networking data. That way, we could could have a whole host of platforms, Diaspora being just one of them, which could all communicate and exchange data using an agreed protocol. Some of them could be ad-free, paid-for services; some could be ad supported. Some could be hosted within enterprises as corporate social networks with limited interaction with the outside world. Such a level of co-operation and interactivity between different services would be a tremendous boon for social networking, taking the power out of the hands of a select few companies and must surely be A Good Thing!