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Open 'Facebook killer' survives on cash donations

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Diaspora, the social network that sells itself as a privacy-conscious alternative to Facebook, is relying on user donations instead of advertising to get it going.

And by contrast to its other competitor, Google+, Diaspora also allows pseudonyms. The decentralised service aims to address some of the multitude of privacy and content control issues that have dogged Facebook and, arguable to a lesser extent, Google+, while still giving users the ability share content and ideas with their friends online.

Users retain the copyright of uploaded photos and the like, which is only shared among groups that users actively define, not friends-of-friends or the whole network (often the default options on Facebook).

The service was launched in November 2010 and remains in alpha. However having signed up to try the invitation-only service months ago, El Reg finally received an invitation to try it on Thursday, so things appear to be moving (albeit slowly). The emailed invitation (extract below) was nothing if not enthusiastic:

Finally – it's here

The social network you have been waiting for has arrived. Revamped, more secure, and more fun, DIASPORA* is ready to help you share and explore the web in a whole new way.

Sign up now

Last month the developers behind the software – students at New York University's Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences – began soliciting donations via PayPal. Diaspora's account was frozen for a short while by the eBay-owned payments biz, without explanation, but has since been restored. The site added other donation methods, including BitCoins, following the episode.

Once signed up to Diaspora, users are immediately invited to link their Diaspora and Facebook accounts to "speed things up a bit" and "enable cross-posting".

This may help populate a profile, but we can't help thinking that linking to Facebook creates privacy concerns all by itself and runs against Diaspora's aims to make "privacy controls both clear and straightforward". You can also add links between Diaspora and Twitter accounts or import contacts from email accounts into Diaspora.

Users are invited to use #hashtags to classify posts and find people who share their interests. They are presented with a "stream" populated with all of their contacts, tags they follow, and "posts from some creative members of the community" who have apparently chosen to share comments, video clips and pictures with everyone on the network. Contents are arranged in "aspects" – friends, family, work colleagues etc – on the site.

There's a lot of help for newbies as well as the facility to ask questions. The interface is clean and well-designed, perhaps partly because there's only one application on offer, Cubbi.es, which offers a way to collate photos. There's also a messaging feature. Overall the web interface is much closer in look and feel to Twitter than Facebook.

The site is useable but still a work in progress, as its alpha designation implies. Upcoming features promised include an ability for users to export their data and to create communities.

Diaspora is based on open-source technology. Early versions of its code were riddled with all manner of security holes, so cautious progress towards a full launch - adopting the open-source ethos of quickly fixing bugs as and when they arise - may be just as well.

There's also the capacity management issues to think about: after all, it's a site run on a modest budget, partially helped by T-shirt sales, and running as a not-for-profit concern. ®

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