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Facebook's rise has been incredible, but it hasn't exactly been smooth. It's easy to forget that on its way to the top of the social networking world, it has faced a fair share of challenges.

One of the biggest challenges: numerous privacy flubs. Flubs which in part inspired Diaspora, the high-profile open source project to create an 'open' Facebook alternative.

Diaspora has become the poster child for those who believe that Facebook has grown too big for its britches. Tim Berners-Lee even mentioned the social network in his misguided attack on closed social networks like Facebook.

Backed with some $200,000 in donations, including one from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg himself, Diaspora would appear to have a bright future as an 'open' social networking platform, even if it isn't a Facebook killer.

When the New York Times profiled the four New York University students behind Diaspora earlier this year, however, one provided an intriguing quote:

What Facebook gives you as a user isn't all that hard to do. All the little games, the little walls, the little chat, aren't really rare things. The technology already exists.

For anyone who develops consumer internet products, such a quote might be the source of a laugh. That's because consumer internet veterans understand: very few things that appear simple or easy were simple or easy to develop.

It looks like the Diaspora team is set to learn this the hard way. 

Yesterday, one Diaspora contributor, Avery Morrow, decided to throw in the towel. The reason: 'gender' is being made a free-form text field. In Morrow's eyes, "this is a sign that the programming team — not some unrelated pinheads, but the five or six people who are supposed to be writing the code — have put strong, usable code last on their priorities."

The person who turned gender into a text field, Sarah Mei, explained why she did so in response to a growing number of people who noticed the change:

I made this change to Diaspora so that I won’t alienate anyone I love before they finish signing up.

I made this change because gender is a beautiful and multifaceted thing that can’t be contained by a list.

I know a lot of people aren’t there with me yet. So I also made this change to give them one momentary chance to consider other possibilities.

I made it to start a conversation.

I made it because I can.

And, of course, I made it so you can be a smartass.

Not surprisingly, there has been a lot of controversy over this subject because of the issues it touches on, and Morrow in particular has received a lot of criticism.

Is gender an important field? Certainly. Can gender be a complex subject? Yes. But from the standpoints of database design and usability, a free form text field is not an attractive solution. In fact, it's the worst and laziest design possible. One can permit more than two selections for this important field without creating data integrity, usability, localization, and search nightmares.

This said, the field -- 'gender' -- is really a red herring. The real issue here: building an open Facebook by consensus is clearly not going to be easy.

While Facebook lets small teams of talented developers create new functionality that, when released, will almost instantly be exposed to millions upon millions of users, Diaspora contributors are already fighting over the minutia of their open Facebook alternative. Facebook develops new features, of course, based on an analysis of real-world usage, and when it ships new code, it iterates as necessary based on the feedback it receives from real users. Diaspora, on the other hand, isn't even out of private alpha and one developer has already single-handedly decided to how one of the most important fields will function with implications for data consistency, search and usability being brushed aside. "To start a conversation", and because she can.

That's not likely to be the foundation of a successful consumer internet product. If Diaspora is going to succeed in building a viable open alternative to Facebook, the people running the show are going to have to try a lot harder and be a lot more creative.

Patricio Robles

Published 30 November, 2010 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

2404 more posts from this author

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Vincent Roman

And may I add ... "be a lot smarter." Years spent at Last.fm and other companies taught me many things, and free form gender fields definitely isn't one of them.

almost 6 years ago

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Sarah Dopp

For those looking for more history and context on Diaspora's gender field (as well as what vCard, OpenSocial, and Microformats are doing on the same topic), take a look here: http://www.sarahdopp.com/blog/2010/gender-is-a-text-field-diaspora-backstory-and-context/

almost 6 years ago

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Phil Stein

Actually, as a user, I like free-form text fields. They are far more difficult to data mine so have inherent privacy advantages. Of course, as a marketer, I wish free-form text fields would apply only to me ;)

almost 6 years ago

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Technology and Design are not morally neutral

Technology shouldn't dictate to people what they are or are not. It is our choice as people to use technology. It should not be the other way around.

almost 6 years ago

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Jon Henshaw

Their first mistake was writing it in RoR instead of PHP, unless of course they're going for a low adoption rate. If that's the case, then they've succeeded.

almost 6 years ago

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David Jones

Diaspora seems like an interesting idea. I have been following it for quit long and am excited about its release. However it remains to be seen if it delivers what it promises. Another site which I have been following as well is MyCube which also sounds very promising as it offers complete control over users content. I will be having a look at both these sites and choosing the safer alternative

almost 6 years ago

John Braithwaite

John Braithwaite, Managing Director at Ergo Digital

It does seem, from the way they talk about it, that they don't have a clear vision for this. It's all very well to promote what they will improve on in Facebook, but it's also clear they are not the team to create all the things that Facebook is.

Gender is a very simple one: Male/Female. Even those who choose to switch can usually make a choice between the two.

The answer from Diaspora just tells you everything you need to know about why, once the dust has settled, it ain't going anywhere.

almost 6 years ago

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Daniel Neaves

Diasporia have forgotten the compromise between user experience and business intelligence here.  There are better ways to achieve flexibility for users without destroying opportunities for data modelling.

A simple drop-down combo box can allow free type yet suggest values too - achieving a sensible compromise.

No wonder Avery Morrow threw the towel in!

almost 6 years ago

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Kate

John, maybe you missed something? The whole point was that gender is not binary.

almost 6 years ago

John Braithwaite

John Braithwaite, Managing Director at Ergo Digital

OK - I don't think this is the place to discuss this kind of 'hot potato'... or is it? It seems like there's far more interest (or is that PR) in the Diaspora approach than the approach of 99.999999% of other sites where it is just binary. I haven't seen much online concern or arm-flapping about only offering Male/Female options on other sites. So it's a bit of a non-issue. However, if the 'don't know what my gender really is, but Male or Female isn't good enough' crowd have found all other sites letting them down... then there's always Diaspora! [ Talk about niche ;-) ] The points from the article, as far as I read it, are two-fold: 1. That to function effectively software needs a much more regimented approach than this and it seems that Diaspora may be too distracted by the desire to be 'not Facebook' rather than actuall focusing on project delivery, and 2. Specifically on this topic it is that the 'audience' has more of an issue about NOT having two options than they have with sites that only offer two options (or just limit options to a selection list) And, from what I can read, on these two counts, it looks like Diaspora has a long road to nowhere ahead of it. No wonder that Zuck wasn't that bothered about donating to it. Donating, not investing (mental note taken). Probably just took the first meeting for him to realise that they weren't a threat and it was good PR for him to seem concerned about security and competition.

almost 6 years ago

Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles, Tech Reporter at Econsultancy

Vincent,

That too. :)

Sarah,

It's worth pointing out that vCard is a file format and OpenSocial is a set of APIs. Neither is a web application. Diaspora is.

To build a successful consumer web application, you need to get all three tiers right - data, logic, presentation. This is much more difficult than deciding how data will be represented in a file format, or communicated via an API.

If you don't get the data right, you can't provide the right logic (functionality). If you don't get the presentation right, you make it hard for your users to provide you with data.

If Diaspora is going to build a quality product, it needs contributors who understand and respect that. The person who implemented this change clearly more interested in making a point than in helping build solid software.

Phil,

There's a big difference between "search" and "data mining". A free-form text field for gender doesn't provide for reliable "serach", but it's probably not all that difficult to "data mine" if somebody cares enough to do so.

Jon,

Yes the decision to use RoR instead of PHP is quite curious.

John,

I think the particular field (gender) is the least interesting part of the story, although I can respect that there's a conversation to be had around it.

But you hint at the real problem: if this is what the Diaspora community is focusing its energies on at this point of the game, it's hard to imagine how it will deliver a quality product that achieves the founder's goals of providing an open alternative to Facebook.

almost 6 years ago

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Pastiche

John, For some of us, free-entry gender is EXACTLY the point, and your not having seen the discomfort nonbinary folks feel concerning this is exactly the problem to some of us *including Sarah Mei, obviously---thank you Mei!*.

Typically, nonbinary identities are identities in and of themselves, only rarely serving as contemplation of transition. Whether we're talking about a dorm room, a job application, or a website, this is a consistent request that usually goes unacknowledged publicly, partly encouraged by folks who continue to pretend that we don't exist ;)

Just imagine for yourself if there were only job applications and bathrooms for women anywhere you went... and if you had to sign up online as female, where your Obvious Penis is no longer obvious. I think you'll see why this is a big deal then.

almost 6 years ago

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vishal bhardhwaj

i think that this is just a trailer of how fresh an alternative to facebook will be. privacy is a huge concern and facebook is always in the middle of these concerns. its time we look at mycube and diaspora as alternatives and move on to them as they release

almost 6 years ago

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