Is Privacy Protection 'More Awesome Than Money'?
Standing in a Silicon Valley bookstore, Jim Dwyer knows not too many people are going to show up to his reading. There is, after all, a huge San Francisco ballgame tonight. Maybe that's why the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The New York Times seems content waxing long and poetic about the motivation behind More Awesome Than Money: Four Boys and Their Heroic Quest to Save Your Privacy from Facebook. Freedom's new frontier. Moral, democratized communication. The Big Bang moment of the digital age. "Plus, my wife told me about it," says Dwyer.
The book chronicles the life of Diaspora, a feisty, nonprofit social network born during long nights coding in an NYU computer lab. Four undergrads were given "a global commission to rebottle the genie of personal privacy" after scoring $200,000 in a Kickstarter campaign and support and mentorship from Silicon Valley's brightest.
In the end, Diaspora didn't take down Facebook, but its hardcore followers have kept it alive.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Diaspora wasn't the first pro-privacy social network to take on Facebook's monopoly and it isn't the last (see Ello), so why did you write a book about them?
It was a perfect storm of social dissatisfaction and technical capability. Facebook was making it clear that their definition of connectedness included following you wherever you went on the Web, taking note of your interests and "giving you a better user experience," which is an abuse of language that means "we want to surveil you and sell to you better." People were starting to recognize that, especially when [Facebook CEO Mark] Zuckerberg launched the push for "likes" to be the tariff system of the Internet. Ryan Singel in Wired bluntly explained it to the non-geek world when he said "Facebook has gone rogue," and called for a distributed social network system.
And the technical?
The technical aspect was that people had been developing this very system. It's called the federated social web, which decentralizes power over the network, so there isn't just one puppet master in Palo Alto. Technologists like Tantek Çelik were creating so-called microformats that allowed simple but vital communications to happen between one social network and another, in the same way that you can pick up an Apple phone and call a Samsung phone.
Another guy, Eben Moglen, a professor of law at Columbia and a technologist, has a project called the FreedomBox. It's an attempt to equip very small servers with stacks of free software in order to make it possible for people to plug this thing into an outlet and to be able to do all the things a server needs to do without having a systems administrator managing it all. Moglen actually was the inspiration for the Diaspora kids.
Diaspora was heralded as a "Facebook killer," but Facebook still reigns supreme. Why does its story matter?
The point of Diaspora wasn't killing Facebook, it was about creating an alternative. The Diaspora group are members of a tribe that we ought to know about and count on. They are not people you can keep score on in the business pages; there is no alpha dog like Steve Jobs barking at the world on behalf of a company. It's all these really smart men and women making small changes to open software that are aimed towards what they consider the public good. All these changes, by the way, are adopted and adapted by the likes of Google and Facebook.
The Diaspora project was done in the spirit of the Mozilla Foundation, which was founded by a group of people that crawled out of the rubble of Silicon Valley's first jackpot, Netscape, and created the first Internet browser everyone could use. They, and Diaspora, are about resisting the surveillance economy that underwrites so much of what goes on online; it's about using the Internet as a vehicle of human communication rather than simply human appropriation.
The story took a tragic turn when Ilya Zhitomirskiy, a co-founder and the soul of Diaspora, committed suicide in November 2011. How did you process it?
It was heartbreaking and I basically dropped the book for four months. I didn't sign on to write a book about a young man killing himself. At Ilya's wake, I had an argument with Dennis Collinson, a collaborator on Diaspora, about who knows what. Ironically, it was his [and programmer Rosanna Yau's, among others] generous and idealistic decision to quit their lucrative jobs and help pick Diaspora up that gave me the inspiration to finish the book. It took a massive amount of bravery, hubris and brass to keep their promise and finish the job.
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