The rapid rise and ubiquity of Facebook during the last ten years has been a remarkable phenomenon. The figure currently used to express the company’s breadth is that they have more than 1.3 billion user accounts. They have successfully monetized their social platform using a variety of means including, among others, advertizing, networking, communications, and harvesting vast amounts of user data, on their site and elsewhere online, to make the users’ experience more “personal”.
Nonetheless, while most users have become highly dependent on their regular use of Facebook, there are many others who still feel somewhat uncomfortable with its privacy policies and intensive data gathering and analytics.
In 2010, four NYU students heard a presentation by Eben Moglen, a law professor at Columbia University, about the lack of online privacy and overall invasiveness of all of the data relentlessly vacuumed up across the web and used for a multitude of largely invisible purposes. This was the inspiration point for them to join together and try to create a privacy aware and fully decentralized social networked called Diaspora. Most importantly, users would own their individual data and be able to take it with them if they chose to leave. They established it as a non-profit entity that operated on an open source basis for its dedicated global corps of developers.
The compelling story of the founders and Diaspora has been now been deeply and dramatically told by author Jim Dwyer (the About New York columnist for The New York Times and the author five other books), in his latest book entitled More Awesome Than Money (Viking, October 2014). With their full access and cooperation, he followed these four young men during every phase of Diaspora’s founding, funding and construction and implementation. They were driven by their desire to make a difference to like-minded social network users who wanted true ownership of their own data, rather than many of today’s other typical startups who are looking to strike it rich.
Their noble quest, with its many high and low points, has been very poignantly captured and told here. This not just another geeked out tome about a tech startup that struggles and then hits the jackpot. Rather, this text operates on multiple levels to very skillfully present and weave together, with much pathos and insight, the lives and motivations of the founding four, their rapid relocation and education in the startup culture of Silicon Valley*, and the complexity of achieving their objectives.
Despite their goal to assemble a true technological and philosophical alternative to Facebook and the support they received in their Kickstarter funding campaign, open source coding support, and the goodwill of many potential users seeking something utterly new like Diaspora, there were many obstacles along the way. These included differences that emerged among the core four, overly ambitious release dates and correspondingly high user expectations, funding challenges, and a tragic personal issue of one founder.
Dwyer recounts, with great internal consistency and engaging prose throughout the text, the complex trajectory of Diaspora. Readers will very quickly be drawn into the narrative and the multiple challenges encountered by the young company. As well, for anyone currently involved in a startup or considering taking the leap to launch one, More Awesome Than Money should be considered required reading. Its cover price alone, consider it a form of nominal seed capital if you will, is certain to yield valuable insights into the unique world of the startup.
* For another very high quality piece of journalism about a completely different startup in Silicon Valley, see One Startup’s Struggle to Survive the Silicon Valley Gold Rush, by Gideon Lewis-Kraus in the April 2014 issue of WIRED.