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4 Things Diaspora can learn from Google+

A stylized dandelion with a green stem and white fuzz, along with the word "diaspora*"

Part 2 of A Crucial Time for Diaspora.  Originally posted on Liminal States.

This weekend I received an invitation through Facebook to join Diaspora. I had tried to join Diaspora last year when I learned about their Kickstarter success while writing my book on crowdsourcing, but I couldn’t get in. So of course I was curious and went immediately to sign up.

And then I was puzzled. Diaspora looked just like…Google+. Or did Google+ look just like Diaspora?

— Aliza Sherman, Google+ meet Diaspora – or maybe you know them already?

Yeah really.  Dan Tynan has similar comments in Will the real anti-Facebook please stand up?  Given that  G+ emerged some seven months after Diaspora went public, I'm guessing Google was taking notes. Sure, the basic idea of having Aspects (in Diaspora) or Circles (in Google+) to  organize your acquaintances isn't new,* but G+'s web layout sure looks a heckuva  lot like Diaspora's.

What’s that they say about the sincerest form of flattery?

And conveniently enough, a large corporation has just spent millions of dollars on a “field test” that offers plenty of learning for Diaspora.  Thanks, Google!

So last week I started asking people what they thought Diaspora could learn from Google+.   Since then Kathy, Helena, Greg, Amy, Stephen, Gretchen, Dan, Paul, Andreas, David, Cindy, Geeky, powlsy, Drew, Terry, Sylvia, Edward, Anne, Hrafn, Shiyiya, Cavlec, Wiring, Madeleine, @PRC_Amber, @blakereidm, Arvind, Dan, and many others came up with new suggestions and refined the list in discussions on Google+, Dreamwidth, Diaspora,  Twitter, earlier draft, and email.  Thanks to everybody who got involved!  As usual, the majority of the good ideas came from others; all of the clunkers and mistakes are mine.

The Diaspora team’s getting a ton of feedback these days — 130 responses just since yesterday. Feedback from early users and passionate supporters is a sign that they want you to succeed, and the best roadmap to improving the product. At the same time, though, there’s only so many hours in the day; and my guess is the team’s list of tasks to accomplish is already more than full.

So I’ve tried to concentrate here on a handful of areas with fairly immediate impact that won’t add much work for the core team and where the community can do the bulk of the heavy lifting.  Without further ado, here they are.

1. Focus on the “new user experience”

Google+ got 25,000,000 people to sign up in the first few weeks, but only a few million stayed.  In the comments to the fascinating “feedback Friday” thread community manager Natalie Villalobos kicked off last month, a lot of people talk about how difficult the experience is for new people, especially if their friends aren’t there yet.  Where are the discussions happening?  How do you meet others?   Who’s interesting to follow?

Diaspora’s got the same challenges — even moreso, because it’s so hard to find good help information. There are good resources out there on Diasporial and elsewhere (Elo­ísa Valdes has a nice short list), but no way for new people to discover them.   And as Twitter and now Google+ are discovering, a “suggested users  list” is fraught with peril.

A few straightforward things could help a lot here:

  • have a “welcome” message for each new user, pointing them to resources and giving some suggestions for getting started.  Ideally this would be something that’s easy for individual pod administrators to customize to add their own twist to it.
  • more awareness of and easier access to the #help hashtag.  Perhaps a link in the top right menu?
  • since a lot of people still have most of their friends on Facebook, publicize Friendrika and other ways of bridging the gap
  • create a volunteer-led “welcoming committee” to greet new users, help them through the inevitable gotchas, and answer questions*

2. Make it easier for people to extend the system and host their own pods

Different people prefer different ways of interacting with the system —  dense information vs white space; text-heavy vs. image-heavy; comments  expanded or contracted by default; and so on.  From very early on, Chrome extensions like G+me, Plus Minus, Auto-colorizer, and the all-important Troll remover make a huge difference in Google+’s usability.   Some good examples and instructions — as well as better visibility for the extensions people are already working on — could unleash the same creativity in the Diaspora* world.**

One of Diaspora’s big advantages over Google+ is that people can install  it themselves and run small pods for friends, families, clubs, churches, or roller derby teams.  But for people to really take advantage of it, the installation needs to be as easy as   WordPress*** and ideally offer  “one-click” installation — on Amazon, Heroku, and eventually ISP as well.    There are lots of sysadmins and IT professionals in the early Diaspora* community who have a much better idea about what’s needed on this front than I do.  Is there a way for a working group of them to take the lead here?

3. Get ready for trolls, hate speech, harassment, and spammers

Remember  when Google thought that its odious “real name” policy  would cut down  on bad behavior?


Soon enough, just like  every other  online site, there was plenty of ugliness — and unlike Live  Journal,  Dreamwidth, Slashdot, or even the old Usenet groups with their   killfiles, there aren’t any good tools to deal with it.  But as weak as Google’s moderation tools and processes for reporting harassment are, they’re still a step up on Diaspora*.   So far, nothing’s been implmented in Diaspora*; the vague description of what’s planned for pre-bata makes it seem like it’s repeating Google+’s mistakes (see Kee Hinckley, Linda Lawrey, and Lauren Weinstein for the problems with this approach).

This would be a great place to follow Dreamwidth’s model for community-driven discussion and design and come up with a better specification before the team implements something ineffective.  And not to sound like a broken record or anything, but it would be great to have the equivalent of Troll Remover for Diaspora.

As for spammers, all those pretty women just out of college who love to advertise Southwest Air are going to discover Diaspora soon enough.  What’s the strategy to deal with spammers signing up on open pods?  What happens when spammers start to set up pods of their own and add people to their aspects?  And are pods vulnerable to spammers hacking into them?   If the “privacy friendly social network” turns into a spam factory, it’ll be a huge blow to Diaspora’s momentum.

Once again, this seems like an opportunity for the community to take the lead. There are plenty of early Diasporans who have hosted forums or run blogs and other sites that have dealt with spam.  And while I haven’t seen a lot of security experts there so far, a lot of hackers support Diaspora’s goals, and I have to believe that reaching out to them could help with security testing as well .  Even something as simple as a weekly “hack this pod” contest could start getting the community involved in discovering problems before the spammers do.

4.  Reach out to the people Google’s ignoring

It’s a huge challenge for any new social network these days to attract  an audience. There are so many sites out there already … who has  time for one more?    So it makes  sense to start by working with people whose needs aren’t getting   met today.   Google+’s core demographics are techies, 20-45 year old guys, affluent “kids and cabernet” couples, and social media experts.  Diaspora’s likeliest successes are with everybody else.

More specifically, the estimated 40% of people online who prefer “screen names” or pseudonyms are an really good target audience right now.  Geek  Feminism’s     excellent list of Who is harmed by a “Real Names” policy and the “Who’s affected?” list on My Name is Me can be the basis of a great outreach and recruiting plan.

It’s not rocket science to reach out to a community — especially if there some passionate early adopters already on Diaspora.  A few basics:

  • Work with people in the community to come up with scenarios and personas highlighting showing how Diaspora helps with the challenges people have today
  • Blog posts and articles from people within the community to raise awareness
  • Lists of people within the community who are already on Diaspora* to help newcomers get involved
  • Set up a virtuous cycle by providing ways for the community to influence the design and development of future versions of the product
  • Set up a pod specifically for this community

Women (who are 25 times more likely to be harassed online than men), LGBTQs (at risk for bullying or worse — and already likely to look on      Diaspora* favorably because gender is a text field), and activists  could be     good groups to start with.  There are lots of other possibilities as well.

An interesting next few months …

Needless to say, these suggestions are only the tip of the iceberg. There’s a ton of stuff that needs to be done on the product side, including dealing with questions about security.  And there’s plenty of marketing as well.  In a comment on an earlier draft of this post, Dan Tynan suggested “Get Robert Scoble to be your cheerleader. Or Om Malik, or Guy Kawasaki, or one of those other guys.”  Indeed! And maybe also some women …

Will the Diaspora team and community step up to the challenge?  I’m optimistic.  As I said in A crucial time for Diaspora*

There are plenty of people (including me!) who are passionate about  what open-source distributed social networks mean for intellectual  freedom.  And just as importantly, there are plenty of people (also  including me!) whose social networking needs aren’t being met right now.

One way or another, it’ll be an interesting time for Diaspora* over the next few months.  Stay tuned!


image from Giorgio * via Diaspora*

* Ardith Goodwin is piloting this on Google+;, and no doubt other sites, have used similar approaches in the past.

** Speaking of which, even a limited read-only API that’s likely to change over time can lead to exciting apps like Mohamed Mansour’s Stream+, developed and released the same day Google published their API.  I realize that API design is challenging, but at this there’s a lot of value in something that’s temporary and “good enough”.

*** Cindy Brown suggested WordPress as a model on G+; Dan Patterson goes into more detail in a comment on Read Write Web, and