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[liberationtech] How the Next Generation Diaspora* Should Be Built to Help High-Risk Activists

Yosem Companys companys at
Sat Nov 26 18:22:02 PST 2011

 How the Next Generation Diaspora* Should Be Built to Help High-Risk

*I. Introduction*

An online privacy activist recently asked me: Suppose you were to build the
next-generation Diaspora* — i.e., a secure, private, and decentralized
social network — how would you go about it?

The question is an important one, especially considering that many
projects preceded Diaspora* but failed to gain
along with the skepticism with which Diaspora* has been met in hacker

Hacker News has been particularly vicious, with attacks on Diaspora*’s
security and privacy code implementation from the get
go<> and
with criticism of the Diaspora*’s team ability (or lack thereof) to
implement its vision <>.

Criticism has also come from the mainstream media, where reporters have
wondered “whatever happened to
and “what’s taking so
though building a secure, private, and decentralized social network were as
easy as building a centralized alternative like Facebook.  In this context,
credit should be given to the Diaspora* founders for trying to advance the
vision by learning from the mistakes past projects have made in this space.

*II. What is the goal?*

One of the first steps to undertake when answering the question posed by my
online privacy activist friend is to determine what the goal of such a
next-generation Diaspora* would be.  For example, if the goal is to gain
traction among mainstream users, as Diso creator Steve Ivy has
then the focus would not be so much on the merits of the technology at
ensuring security and privacy, as it would be on its ability to use
decentralization to overcome Facebook’s considerable network
As one of Liberationtech <>’s
coordinators, I’m much more interested in the former than the latter, for
there are many people in the world who care about security, privacy, and
decentralization for its own sake, and there is a very compelling reason
for giving these people such a solution, i.e., their very lives depend on
it.  Before we delve into that topic, however, I’d like to address the
question of how one would overcome Facebook’s network effects.

*III. How does one overcome Facebook’s network effects?*

As you may recall from economics, a network
effect<> is
the effect one user of a good or service has on the value of that product
to other people.  A network with a lot of people has more value than one
that has fewer people.  For example, if you are looking for a job, or
searching for people who share your interests, you are more likely to find
them in a larger network than in a smaller one.  Since people will choose
to join the larger network at the expense of the smaller one, one will
ultimately end up with one giant network, as barring some kind of niche
offering in smaller networks, one is unlikely to find any value in the
smaller networks as the number of users on those networks dwindles.

This process also illustrates how difficult it is to persuade one person to
switch from one network to another.  A person benefits from her
participation in a social network because she has ties on that network.
That person’s friends benefit from their participation in that network
because of their ties.  As such, to persuade someone to switch from one
network to another, you must not only persuade that person to make the
switch but also that person’s ties, thereby creating a chicken-and-egg
problem <>: That person will
switch only if her friends switch, and the friends will switch only if that
person switches.  Thus, overcoming network effects is a group problem, not
an individual one: You must create a social movement of sorts to encourage
people to switch from one social network to another, or at the very least,
create an information cascade<>
 orbandwagon effect <> that
encourages people to switch.

For those who may be skeptical about the strength of Facebook’s network
effects, consider the following:
find that approximately 70% of users are concerned about their Facebook
privacy and security, yet according to a proprietary Forrester study only
4% quit Facebook for this reason.  In fact, nearly half of those who quit
Facebook do so because they were bored with Facebook or found a better
niche site elsewhere.  These numbers suggest the strength of Facebook’s
social network effect.  Given the seriousness of people’s security and
privacy concerns, one would expect a much larger number of people to quit.
Yet they don’t do so because quitting would mean losing touch with your
friends and other contacts on the Facebook network.

You may immediately notice, however, that this economics story is
one-sided: The assumption is that advantages in network size will create an
inexorable trend towards consolidation, yet the disadvantages in network
size that could create an equally strong or more powerful effect away from
consolidation is left unexplored.  We know, however, that such effects
exist.  Otherwise, how would MySpace have replaced Friendster in the first
place?  Or how would Facebook have replaced MySpace?

The question that arises then is the following: How does one overcome
Facebook’s network effect?  There is less research on overcoming network
effects than on their inevitability, but some possibilities immediately
come to mind.

*A. Deep Pockets*

One obvious possibility is that a competitor may come along with pockets
sufficiently deep enough to challenge the entrenched network.  Such a
competitor could spend considerable resources on marketing and advertising
to attract users to switch from the dominant network to the competing one.
Yet, as Google+’s experience has shown, this process may be neither
immediate nor successful.  The verdict is still out, but Google+’s recent
that deep pockets may not be enough to counter a leading network’s network

*B. People Discovery*

A second promising alternative is people discovery, i.e., a social network
that enables you to meet people you don’t know.  Despite an extensive
academic literature that suggests that people are distrustful at meeting
strangers in real life, proprietary Mintel data suggests the opposite:
Nearly 50% of those surveyed say they would like to meet strangers online,
and many admit to “friending” strangers on a regular basis, including
women, who are generally assumed to be much more distrustful of strangers.
Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee sees people discovery, or stretching one’s
ties to meeting people who are different from
as the next social networking frontier, and companies have heeded the call,
as Altly’s transformation from a private social network to a
people-discovery engine named

It’s unclear, however, whether people discovery will be sufficient to
overcome Facebook’s network effects, especially since Facebook has
sufficient resources to copy any social network innovation in this area to
its advantage.  Moreover, by virtue of Facebook’s larger pool of users, the
company should be in an ideal position to introduce people to others they
do not know.

As Twitter has shown, however, people discovery has the distinct advantage
of circumventing Facebook’s network effect.  If a new social network
focuses on people who want to meet those they don’t know, then those people
are also less likely to care whether their existing ties are on that new
network, since by definition they don’t care as much about their existing
ties as they do about establishing new ones.  Twitter has capitalized on
this insight, and Facebook has recognized it, as the latter’s ongoing
transformation from a private, close-tie, college-based campus network to a
public, weak tie, international network has
In economics, some<>have
argued that countries pursue protectionism when they are poor and free
trade when they are rich.  Similarly, Facebook was for privacy as a small
network and is now for openness as a large one.

*C. Technical Superiority*

A third possibility is to find a technical feature (or set of features)
that are more valuable than those offered by the dominant network.  In
other words, one would focus on technical advantages that overcome the
social advantages created through network effects.  An example of this can
be found in how Google overcame Yahoo at
Google had a search algorithm that generated better results, and over time,
people gravitated to Google over Yahoo.

One example that comes to mind in the network space would be the
application of natural language
enable users to get more benefits out of their social network ties.
Facebook does this through filtering, albeit not as transparently as many
would like, leading thinkers like Eli
Pariser<> to
complain about the dangers of “filter
In fact, there is a battle brewing
 and Google+ <> in this area, as
natural language processing is seen as the potential driver for a new wave
of social network interactions.  Nevertheless, just as Google did to Yahoo,
it is entirely conceivable that a new network could come along with a
proprietary algorithm in natural language processing that could give it a
similar technical advantage over Facebook or Google+ in the social
networking marketplace.

Moreover, there are many unexplored innovations in this space:  While
computational researchers have made advancements in the study of syntax and
semantics <>,
pragmatics <> remains a relatively
black box, despite media hype to the contrary.  In fact, the most
sophisticated research in this area comes not from computer science but
from social network
the behavioral sciences.  Surprisingly, however, programmers have yet to
mine this extensive literature for behavioral insights with which to
construct better social networking sites.

*D. Total Institutions*

One final possibility comes from the realm of total
A total institution can be defined as a place of work and residence where a
great number of similarly situated people, cut off from the wider community
for a considerable time, together lead an enclosed, formally administered
round of life.  Examples of total institutions include monasteries, the
army, prisons, and psychiatric institutions, among many others.  Total
institutions are dense locations of activity, where ideas can spread
quickly, and thus they are ideal locations for fostering the growth of
social networking sites.

You’re probably thinking: “That’s crazy. Are you suggesting that we build a
social network out of an insane asylum?”  But before you discount the idea,
remember that this is exactly one of the reasons why Facebook became a
dominant player in social networking.  Facebook, in fact, capitalized on
the most influential total institution of Western society, i.e., the
college campus.  On college campuses, students work and live together, and
they share similar values and engage in similar activities, cut off from
the wider community for at least four years.  Facebook’s strategy, as I
have explained elsewhere<>,
focused on controlled growth and saturation from one college to the next.
To the extent that female students had privacy fears about joining
Facebook, these concerns were assuaged by the fact that Facebook only
allowed people who had university email addresses to join, such that the
number of potential whack jobs were limited to those that you knew on your
college campus, not those that you did not.  This may also help explain why
Facebook, unlike other social networking and dating sites, is predominantly
female, and why men — as even the Facebook founders themselves acknowledge
— were so attracted to joining Facebook in the first place.

This story raises the question:  Can a new social networking site challenge
Facebook by taking over college campuses again?  The answer to that is
unclear.  Facebook remains strong among college campuses, though the bulk
of its growth is now coming from older demographics, such that the
proportion of college students in the network has fallen.  You could say
that Facebook’s strategy has now shifted from the campus as a total
institution to the elderly home as a total institution.  At the same time,
college campus-specific social networks have been launched in recent years
but have made scarcely a dent on Facebook’s college-age numbers.

As such, a better question to ask is the following:  Are there other total
institutions out there that social networking entrepreneurs can tap into to
challenge Facebook’s dominance?  I don’t really have a good answer to this
question, so it remains rhetorical.  But to the extent that Diaspora* has
gotten more traction than other social networking sites, it is because it
has tapped into the free culture
, hackerspaces <> and maker
and so on.  Similarly, though Silicon Valley has an aversion to politics, a
social networking site that is built out of movements such as
,WikiLeaks <>, or the Occupy
movement<> may
be able to attain significant traction, if timed properly.  In short, while
the number of pure total institutions in our society is limited, it is
clear from Diaspora*’s experience that a group-based social networking
recruitment approach may work better for social networking entrepreneurs
than the traditional individual-based approach they have followed to date.

*IV. Getting back to the task at hand*

Overcoming Facebook’s network effect, however, only matter to the extent
that you want to build traction to supplant Facebook.  But suppose you’re
not interested in traction.  Suppose that what you care about is to create
a secure, private, and decentralized Facebook alternative that
protects high-risk
activists fighting for freedom, democracy, and human rights in oppressive,
dangerous environments <>.  Then,
many of the mainstream users’ considerations drop out of the equation, and
the problem becomes much more focused and manageable — albeit still
difficult.  At the same time, however, mainstream users who care about
privacy and security can still use the solution, if they are so inclined.

As a Stanford liberationtech
<> coordinator,
you can see why I would be so interested in such a solution.  The goal of
our program is to conduct research and design of information and
communication technologies to foster freedom, democracy, human rights,
development, and effective governance.  In other words, we want to figure
out ways in which technology can support the dangerous work that activists
conduct every day to create a better world.  A secure, private, and
decentralized communication platform would help support activist efforts to
this end.  And such a platform only needs traction among activists, not all
mainstream users, to succeed.  In other words, it needs to solve the
activist problem, not the mainstream user’s problem, to be most effective.

*A. Organizing versus broadcasting*

But, you may ask, aren’t movements like the Occupy movement, theArab
or the *Indignados <> *more
interested in spreading the word?  As such, how can you give up on traction
in pursuit of this goal?  To answer these questions, it is important to
differentiate between what activists do *before* a movement and what they
do *during* a movement.  As my doctoral dissertation shows, before a
movement, an activist needs a private and secure platform to organize with
a small group of people.  These are the people who lay the groundwork for
what the movement is to become.  Authoritarian regimes understand this,
which is why they seek to stamp out the early-movers, and why they
immediately crack down on any signs of free assembly.  When groups of
people are able to assemble in such environments, that’s when the regime’s
days are numbered.

If people are able to assemble, then the activist’s task changes from
organizing to spreading the word.  It is at this point that traction, or
the broadcast capabilities of a social networking site, become important.
But as we have seen, large mainstream social networking sites like Facebook
and Twitter are more effective at doing this task.  Once activists get to
the broadcasting stage, what becomes more important to them is to protect
their identities as they spread the movement’s message.  But the organizing
task is never completed.  The organizing task continues.  And it is this
organizing task that I care about most.  This critical organizing task is
done by a small group of people that need to be able to maintain strong
ties to one another in a secure and private fashion if they are to succeed.

This explanation starts to draw the raw schematic of what a next generation
Diaspora*-like private, secure, and distributed social network should look
like, if it is to achieve
Liberationtech<> ends.
The network should facilitate the communication of a small group of people
seeking to organize social change and subsequently enable them to broadcast
that message through larger mainstream social networking sites to generate
the strength-in-numbers that can help movements grow and ultimately bring
about political change.  In other words, it must be a secure and private
social networking site with
capabilities that can protect the anonymity of the person broadcasting
messages to the larger and more mainstream social networking sites.

*B. Decentralization*

So far, my emphasis has been on security and privacy alone.  But
decentralization is inextricably tied to security and privacy and equally
important.  What do we mean by decentralization?  Decentralization means
that instead of having to post a message to a central server like Facebook,
and then wait for that server to transfer that message (or not, in the case
of censorship) to your friend, you send that message to your friend
directly.  To achieve this, communication must be machine-to-machine, where
the sender controls the first machine and the recipient controls the
second, and the message that is transmitted is encrypted to ensure that
only the sender and the recipient can read it.  In other words, the sender
and recipient must have an easy and fast means to install and manage the
software on their machines — whether these machines are servers, computers,
or phones, as in the FreedomBox <>vision.
 Furthermore, the sender and the recipient must have the ability to stop
using their machines and seamlessly use new ones, should the original
machines be compromised for whatever reason by an authoritarian regime.
The software would need to have an easy “self-destruct mechanism” such that
the data can be destroyed immediately in an emergency.  At the same time,
the “right to forget<>”
would have to be embedded from the get go, such that the data would self
destruct after a certain period of time to prevent a trail of communication
that would make it easy for an authoritarian regime to track down the
activists.  As such, the next generation of secure, private, and
decentralized social networking site would create a one-click turnkey
solution for activists that could easily be discarded if compromised and
whose data could be destroyed automatically as the utility of the data
diminishes while organizing unfolds.

*C. Mobility*

There is one final consideration.  Activists are constantly on the move,
such that the social networking site will need to be mobile from the get go
and have the capability of synchronizing data on multiple machines
simultaneously.  Thus, if the activist needs to coordinate with others
elsewhere, she must have the capability to access her data from the
alternate location.  Similarly, there will be times when the activist will
attend a street protest, and the relevant social networking data will need
to be accessible on her phone.  Other times, the activist will need to go
to a “safe house <>” and access her
data from there.

Moreover, connectivity will vary greatly.  At times the activist may have
access to broadband Internet, but other times, she may need to connect via
a 56K modem, a mobile connection, a mesh
or perhaps even a satellite link.  The social networking site will need to
be accessible regardless of the connectivity, which means significant work
on data compression <> will be
required to ensure that the software’s performance remains nimble under
such disparate conditions.  This creates difficult challenges for the
developers of such an application that developers of mainstream
applications would never have to encounter.

*D.  Cooperative*

So how does one draw the necessary resources required to overcome the
aforementioned challenges of security, privacy, decentralization, and
mobility to build such a social networking site?  Western society gives us
two main legal-institutional vehicles for tackling the problem:  i) a
for-profit firm a la limited liability
 or C corporation <>; or ii) a
non-profit firm a la private
 or 501(c) organization <>.
 (Another possibility is a hybrid for-profit/non-profit model a la
 or Mozilla <>, but let’s set that
aside for now.)  In either case, a group of individuals — usually, the
founders — become owners of the organization and raise the necessary
resources needed to execute the organization’s mission, implement its
strategies, and reach its goals.

A for-profit organization like a C-Corp is ideally suited for the task
because the founders can sell an ownership stake in the firm in order to
raise the requisite resources.  But as the saying goes, there’s no such
thing as a free lunch.  The resources come at a cost in terms of the
organization having to perform in a reliable and accountable fashion
relative to the expectations of its shareholders.  In the pursuit of
profit, principle can easily be abandoned since, at the end of the day, all
the shareholders care about is obtaining superior returns relative to what
they could receive by investing elsewhere.  If the firm is able to secure
superior returns, however, other prospective investors will be attracted to
the investment opportunity, thereby providing the organization with the
resources to grow over time.  In the end, shareholders matter more than
customers — and for our purposes, the activists risking their lives for
freedom, democracy, and human rights — for without the shareholders there
is no business.

On the surface, a non-profit organization looks better on principle grounds
because the organization is not acting on the basis of profit alone.
 Nevertheless, a non-profit organization is still owned by a small group of
individuals, and as in the case of a for-profit firm, controlled by its
board of directors, which means all decisions with respect to the
organization and its customers — or in this case, activists — are made by
the board.  This means that, in both the for-profit and non-profit cases,
the product at the end of the day is determined by decisions resulting from
the good will and discretion of a small group of individuals.  You’ll
probably be surprised to hear that it’s often also the case for open-source
projects like Diaspora*.  As Karl Fogel’s book “Producing Open
Source Software: How to Run a Successful Free Software
Project<>“ teaches,
most open-source projects are run by “benevolent
in whom “final decision-making authority rests” and “who, by virtue of
personality and experience, is expected to use it wisely.” Even in the case
where the project isAffero General Public License (or
the benevolent dictator can make decisions that can prevent the right
technologies from being implemented over the course of the project.  The
project may even create disincentives for open-source involvement by
creating restrictive intellectual property (IP) assignment contracts that
require developers to give up all rights to the code they produce.  And
worse, a non-profit organization cannot sell shares, which means that there
are no financial incentives other than the generosity of donors to raise
the resources required to develop it.

So to summarize, on the one hand, there’s the for-profit firm that can sell
shares to raise the necessary revenues to develop a product but in many
cases may sell out principle in pursuit of profit, and on the other hand,
there’s the non-profit firm that has to depend on donations but, as in its
for-profit counterpart, still makes the activists beholden to the actions
of a few individuals.  Given this predicament, what are we to do to ensure
that the organization is accountable to the activists it serves and can
mobilize developers to contribute in an open-source manner to the project?
 One possibility is the cooperative<>,
a business organization owned and controlled democratically by its members
for mutual benefit.  The cooperative can range from for-profit to
non-profit, depending on the project’s ultimate goals.  Thus, while the
cooperative is not a magical solution to all of the aforementioned
problems, it can help ameliorate many of them, when correctly designed and

The advantage of the cooperative for purposes of the task at hand is that
it can ensure that the organization operates in a democratic and
accountable fashion relative to the developers who contribute the code to
solve the aforementioned technical challenges and relative to the activists
who risk their lives using the technology to do their jobs on the field.
 The developers can transfer their IP rights to the cooperative, knowing
that such rights will not be exploited for financial gain without them.
 Similarly, the activists can know that the organization has their best
interest at heart and thus can trust that the solution will be built and
subsequently developed with their needs and concerns in mind.

*V. Conclusion*

So in response to my online privacy activist friend’s question about how I
would build the next-generation Diaspora*, my answer is this:  I would
create it first and foremost as a secure, private, distributed, and mobile
platform with HootSuite <>-like (but
anonymous) broadcast capabilities and fast and reliable performance under
rapidly changing conditions.  But I would make sure to work within a
cooperative legal-institutional framework to find the correct design that
makes the organization accountable both to its developers and customers,
i.e., the activists that the social networking site is meant to serve.
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