Can Diaspora* Compete With Facebook And Google+?

Ilya Zhitomirskiy

Ilya Zhitomirskiy1989-2011

In this post I’ll explain why I think Diaspora* will outlast Facebook and Google+, even though it may never reach their level of popularity. I’ll explain why Diaspora* does not need to compete with them to be a success, and why I think one or both could well fail and be replaced by Diaspora* or a similar user-oriented, non-commercial social network.

RIP Ilya Zhitomirskiy – A Short Tribute

Sadly, in the last few days we heard of the premature death at age 22, of Ilya Zhitomirskiy (pictured here), one of the four founders of Diaspora*.

While details of Ilya’s death have yet to become public, the community has been awash with tributes and heartfelt messages, alongside a growing confidence that Diaspora* will continue to grow and flourish, and that this will be part of Ilya’s legacy.

Naturally Ilya’s death has drawn attention to the project, creating a surge in interest and reporting about Diaspora*, which is yet to launch to the public although there is already a healthy and active community of test users, including over 175,000 on one of the larger “pods” (joindiaspora.com). The team have recently been very active in preparing for the first public release (and moving Diaspora* from alpha to beta), and still expected within the next few weeks.

It is my belief that Diaspora*, to which Ilya contributed so much, is already a success as I will explain shortly.

I did not know Ilya, but I am grateful to him and his colleagues for taking such a bold and admirable step. They have created what is surely a great and innovative solution to many of the problems faced by millions of ordinary people who are exploited, or even put at risk by the profit imperative commercial social networks.

I offer my condolences to Ilya’s family and all who knew him.

Can Diaspora* Compete With Facebook And Google+?

Much of this discussion about Diaspora* has focussed on whether or not it can compete in terms of numbers with Facebook, and Google+. In this article I will address that question, but also some others which I think anyone interested in the future of social networks should be thinking about. These are:

1. Does Diaspora* need to compete with Facebook?

2. Could Diaspora* ever overtake Facebook?

As Diaspora* prepares to launch…

3. How does Diaspora* compare to Facebook or Google+?

4. Should I Try Diaspora* Yet?

I’ll take these in order, being brief in this post, and referring to separate posts for more detail where needed.

Does Diaspora* need to compete with Facebook?

Frankly, no, Diaspora* does not need to compete with Facebook to succeed. This is easy to see. To be a success, all Diaspora* has to achieve is to keep a bunch of users happy, and it is already achieving that before launch.

As I see it, there is no risk to Diaspora* from Facebook (or Google+). Reaching hundreds of millions of users is essential to commercial social networks, because they have to operate on a big scale to cover their enormous costs, and they use economy of scale to undercut commercial competitors and eliminate competing services. So Facebook, Google+ and Twitter must obtain very large numbers of users, and cannot all be profitable in the same market for long (without external regulation such as anti-monopoly measures).

You might think that with 800 million users (November 2011, for latest see: stats from Facebook), Facebook is unassailable. I certainly won’t argue that it is vulnerable! However where is the real threat to Facebook? Perhaps it is Google+.

Is Google+ A Threat To Facebook?

Google+ has grown rapidly since launch and has “40+ million users” (in November 2011, according to Google). However, given the enormous advantage of Facebook it looks unlikely that Google+ can survive in a commercial face-off. To overtake Facebook its going to need a killer differentiator, and that is not evident yet. In fact, comparing functionality, there is little to differentiate Facebook and Google+, or Diaspora* for that matter.

At this point therefore, Google+ seems doomed to fail and ultimately be killed off. This is because to cover its costs it needs to increase in size by a factor of at least ten before Google+ pulls the plug on the enormous costs involved. Otherwise economies of scale will give Facebook cost advantage that will starve Google+ of the revenue it needs to cover the enormous costs of running a centralised network for hundreds of millions of users.

Where Is The Real Threat To Facebook?

To threaten Facebook, a rival will need a significant differentiator. When Facebook took out the seemingly unassailable MySpace, its differentiator was that it managed to appeal to almost anyone on the internet, rather than the much smaller niche of young music consumers that had come to dominate MySpace. Facebook overtook MySpace and once this happened a tipping point was reached that caused MySpace to rapidly lose users to Facebook. Facebook won because it had broader appeal and more potential friends to connect with.

So if Google+ lacks a killer differentiator, could it be that Diaspora* has what it would take to kill off Facebook? Well, there is one very big difference that could be crucial.

Could Diaspora* ever overtake Facebook?

If there is ever a Facebook face-off, the threat is more likely to come from Diaspora* than Google+.

That may sound ridiculous to some, and I am not saying it is going to happen, but that its more likely to be Diaspora* or some other non-commercial social network that succeeds Facebook. For it is when faced by a non-commercial competitor, that the enormous vulnerability of Facebook is exposed: its need to generate massive revenues from users.

Facebook, Google+ and Twitter all have this same Achilles heel. They have shareholders to please and massive operating costs to recover. To survive they have to make a profit or they will disappear. They have to make money out of their users.

Now compare this situation with what Diaspora* needs in order to survive.

Can Diaspora* Survive Alongside Facebook?

To date Diaspora* has been funded by enthusiastic supporters. A bunch of people who were inspired by the vision of four student founders, and agreed to give them some money to get the project up and running.

The initial funding was tiny compared to Facebook’s resources, just two hundred thousand dollars. But Diaspora* does not need to pay back even this small investment. Nor does it incur significant running costs that need to be recovered. I don’t know the exact running costs but they are small, and because everything is donated, there is no profit needed to grow the investment of shareholders.

Some donate cash from $5 upwards, others donate time, others donate a server and so on. Almost anyone technically savvy can set up a server and be incorporated into the network. The software itself is developed and maintained by a large, intelligent and active community who are involved because they believe in the aims and values of the project, as conceived by Ilya and his three co-founders. So how can Diaspora* fail? It is still pre-release software (alpha), yet I’ve been using it for the last few weeks and watching the community grow rapidly with lots of positive feedback from its enthusiastic users.

There is no doubt in my mind that Diaspora* can survive indefinitely, whatever happens to Facebook or a successor, without ever needing to make a profit. All it needs is a small group of enthusiastic developers who see enough value in it to be willing to maintain it, and a community that wants to deploy it. There are lots of precedents to show that this is more than likely (cf. Linux, Apache, LibreOffice).

3. How does Diaspora* compare to Facebook or Google+?

Rather than compare a long list of features and functionality, which are frankly pretty similar across all three, I’m going to mention the main differences in features, and my experience with all three.

[please nag me to complete this in a comment!]

In the mean time you may like to read my analysis of interaction on Google+ and Diaspora*:

Google+ versus Diaspora*—Blog Post Interaction Analysis

4. Should I Try Diaspora* Out?

[please nag me to complete this in a comment!]

 

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7 comments to Can Diaspora* Compete With Facebook And Google+?

  • Mark, first of all we’re already close to *200,000* (!) Diasporians on JoinDiaspora.com. This number does include everyone from different Pods who’s connected to JoinDiaspora.com (added to an aspect there); http://j.mp/tTm5BM

    Beside the numbering I can follow your arguments. But – sounds funny – I’m not sure if I can follow your *question*? – My counter questions are: Does Diaspora *wants* to compete with Facebook and Plus at all? Is Diaspora *ready* for the mass market? What would active competition mean to infrastructure (servers, applications) *and* community?

    I am very willing to rumble, but I feel that Diaspora needs a little bit more time and improvement…

    PS: Please read the IEEE article; http://eicker.at/DiasporaSummary

  • Zulu

    Naaaaaaaag — I want to hear more on your final two points!

  • As per your request, I am nagging you to complete #3. 🙂 I am also a satisfied Disapora* user.

  • I have a suggestion for the uncompleted section:

    Should You Try Out D*?

    Yes.

    In more detail: The users are friendly, the conversation is intelligent, and it makes you part of the federated social web.

  • Danielle

    You’ve got to finish that section on Should I Join D*? Mostly because I’ve joined but I’m not sure when to try to bring my fb friends over. Probably not quite yet as I’m still figuring it out but….be interested to hear your views of the critical ingredients required before people should jump.

  • Wow, thank you all for your comments and especially the nags. I will do my best to finish this which probably means being a bit less active on Diaspora* while I do–Ironic! I have other things to catch up on too.

    If any of you would like to write a guest post here about these kind of issues, let me know what you’d like to write about.

    Mark

  • Mark

    Nag. 😉
    I’d also love to see your input to the last two points. 🙂

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