Updated: September 17, 2012
First, let me begin by saying I rather dislike digital social networks, or social networks, or society in general, me being somewhat of a misanthrope. But I like networks. With clear expectations set, we move on. Anyhow, Diaspora is a brand new, alpha-stage distributed social network with non-profit motives, possibly created to offer an alternative to the Facebook-dominated model of society.
Diaspora aims to offer users the freedom and privacy they don't get on rival platforms, without compromising on all the fun that online encounters may bring. You get all the usual share of sharing and liking, a pseudo-personal website customization, only you are not led, governed or steered by the evil hand of money. Sounds interesting. But the big question is, can a Facebook alternative not be, a de facto, Facebook alternative?
While creating a user on Facebook is trivial, Diaspora makes it a little harder for you to become member of the free Borg entity. After you sign in, you must choose a pod. Pods are web servers acting as Diaspora nodes. To borrow from the P2P terminology, these are your servers, although you will eventually collaborate with clients elsewhere. You can join any one pod and use the entire network, so you should opt for the server with best performance in regard to your geographical location.
Once you join your pod, you can start customizing your account. For all its purpose of being free and different, the social network allows you to hook up your Facebook account to Diaspora, which, in my view, defeats its entire purpose.
The next step is to make yourself a little more known and visible to the community, which currently counts around 400K users, far less than its rival, but then do you really need all those mindless souls out there?
Interests, if you happen to have some, add them. The use of hash tags reminds of Twitter, which is probably what the developers had in mind, although I find the idea to be horrible, either here or your 140-character chirper network. Why would sane people use alphanumeric meta tags in normal conversations?
Finally, after this last step, you will begin using your account in earnest. Based on your profile, your home page or wall or whatever you want to call it, although it is officially known as Stream, will be populated with entries and posts from same minded people.
Now, I must admit Diaspora feels a bit lonely. You have no perception how many people are out there, but too many entries shown in the Stream belonged to just a small bunch of users, which led me to believe that only a fraction of registered accounts are really active.
And now you're pretty much on your own. You can specify your additional interests, you can define your aspects, tweak the profile a little more. All in all, it feels a bit sad, a bit pre-determined. If social networks are all about exploring, I didn't feel the urge to get to know the faces behind the avatars listed in the Followed Tags lists, nor invite anyone to be my friend.
I also did not like the partial HTTPS encryption thingie that popped up once or twice, but that's a bit more technical and less related to the actual social network itself. then, there's the tag field jutting some 10px outside the left column, which speaks of some bad CSS or whatnot somewhere.
The big question ...
Now, here's the big question. Visually, Diaspora reminds of Facebook and/or other social networks, with the typical, clue-like use of tagged posts, people stacked as nameless blocks and all that. So why? Why do you need a social network that replaces another?
I got the impression that the word free was touted like a holy weapon a total of ten million times before I even reached my home page so to speak. It's as if being free in some weird sense is the primary purpose of using a social network. If so then, why conform to code written by others and not just use your own skills to gain friends?
Maybe I'm missing something in the bigger picture, if there's one, but I don't see any reason in using a small, niche product that supposedly protects my virginity while its interactive benefits are scraping the nil end of the graph. Furthermore, if social networks are all about the ease of use and empowering you with a sense of belonging, you get a chilly, sobering countereffect after starting at your stream, with ten consecutive posts by one and the same person. It's either very empty or very boring.
Let's peel Diaspora like an orange. Design and layout, nice, inviting, with good use of the IKEA school of styling, probably better than its counterparts. But some bits in the backend need fixing, like the misaligned text boxes and partial HTTPS encryption. From the usage perspective, the functionality is a little bland, but given some future development, Diaspora might get into a state where it offers everything at the tip of your fingers. For now, it's a domain for enthusiastic geeks and people who seek familiarity in some, deep hidden knowledge of an uncommon truth.
Finally, the third layer - the relevance. Neither Facebook, nor any of its competitors have any real life relevance, but it's all about perception and herd mentality. In this regard, Diaspora escapes the herd to become a flock. But it's a tiny one, and most of the sheep are ugly. If you need a social network, then there's really no reason using Diaspora, just because it's different. If privacy and freedom and ideals are your main motives, you're fighting the wrong battle by creating a personal profile that is visible in the public domain. If you're looking for technological, heuristic, search, quality, and ease of use advantages that Diaspora may have over its rival, I'm not sure it does have any. It's a network designed with passion and some pretty neat tricks, but that's not good enough.
If I had to, absolutely had to join a social network lest my dingleberries fall off, I must admit I would not be using Diaspora. In its current state, it just feels anti-social in a disturbing kind of way. If it had more users, I guess I would not be feeling the massive surge of emptiness fill the cavity of my stomach every time I look at the super-short list of people who share my interests. For now though, it smells of geeks not invited to the big party at the nearby fraternity house. Especially since you loathe the whole lot of them and don't want to be there in the first place. Still, it's a nice product, as such. But it's not a trend. Aha.