Thursday, May 13, 2010

Would YOU Join a Social Network Named Diaspora?

When I first encountered Diaspora through a post on Matt Asay's Open Road blog for CNET News, I did not give it much thought. I continue to follow reports of Facebook's problems (as in Asay's post) with what can best be called "detached amusement;" but, like Betty White, I really cannot grasp what it is that motivates so many people to waste so much time, particularly when that time seems to serve as a surrogate for actual face-to-face encounters. Today, however, the story gravitated to The Social, a CNET News column that Caroline McCarthy maintains. Her report taps into yet another indicator of just what kind of world the Internet has made:

Perhaps the most damning critique of Facebook's recent controversial moves has been that a group of programmers have been raising money to create an alternative--and people are donating.

Diaspora, a social-networking project hatched by four New York University programming students in their early 20s, is set to hit $100,000 on Thursday in its quest to raise enough funding from the public to spend the summer building "an open source personal web server that will put individuals in control of their data," using a fundraising platform start-up called Kickstarter. Their original goal was to raise $10,000 by June 1. As of Thursday, they have raised nearly an order of magnitude more than that with 19 days still to go.

McCarthy attributes this financial success to the fact that "animosity toward Facebook is at an all-time high;" and I can certainly appreciate her position. If political advertising plays up to the tendency of the electorate to vote against a candidate or ballot measure, rather than for one, then this story may just be an example of people willing to vote with their pocketbooks against Facebook, even if, as McCarthy makes clear, Diaspora is still in the vaporware stage.

This is little more than a replay of history in a different setting. The dot-com bubble was inflated by investments in promises, rather than products. Nevertheless, there are some interesting questions surrounding both what Diaspora seems to be promising and, perhaps more importantly, how they are packaging their promises. Here is another paragraph from McCarthy's story:

"We are 140-character ideas. We are the pictures of your cat. We are blog posts about the economy. We are the collective knowledge that is Wikipedia," Diaspora's home page explains. "The internet is a canvas--of which, we paint broad and fine strokes of our lives with. It is a forward extension of our physical lives; a meta-self comprised of ones and zeros. We are all that is digital: If we weren't, the internet wouldn't either."

I reproduce it in this form because, having followed her link to the Diaspora home page, I could not find this statement there! It seems to have been displaced by a report of that recent fund-raising result. Nevertheless, I eventually found the statement on a project description page, which is probably where it properly belongs. Either way, I cannot say that it raises an awful lot of confidence. If anything, it reminds me of Yogi Berra's classic remark about déjà vu all over again.

This time, however, the memory stretches much further back than the dot-com bubble, because the very name of the enterprise carries more than a century of unpleasant (if not offensive) baggage with it. Let us begin with the faux definition on the Diaspora home page, which Asay captured in his blog post:

The one thing they got right is the Greek origin of the word; but, since I no longer have my Greek copy of the Septuagint, I cannot say whether or not they got the spelling right. What interests me more is that the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (of all sources) does not give a lower-case spelling of this word. It is listed only in its capitalized form with the following definition:

The dispersion of Jews among the Gentile nations; all those Jews who live outside the biblical land of Israel; (the situation of) any body of people living outside their traditional homeland.

The entry also cites the Septuagint source, which is the 25th verse from the 28th chapter of Deuteronomy. The Hertz Humash calls this the "Blessings and Warnings" chapter, because it enumerates the rewards and punishments for adhering to and violating the laws set forth in the Mosaic code. As you might guess, the 25th verse comes from the "Warnings" section; and it is a goodie:

The Lord will cause thee to be smitten before thine enemies; thou shalt go out one way against them, and shalt flee seven ways before them; and thou shalt be a horror unto all the kingdoms of the earth.

In other words "Diaspora" is one of the best nouns that captures the Old Testament expression of the Wrath of God. This is a name for a social network?

I suppose I find myself irritated by this example because it gores two of my favorite oxen in a single stroke. First, there is the general sense of an awareness of history. Second is the matter of choosing words with respect for what they mean through connotation as well as denotation. In my irritation I could only wonder whether or not a system named "Nakba" could be just as successful in raising $100,000 in seed funding; but I am not sure I want to know the answer to that question.

No comments: