With privacy concerns so rife these days, it is hard to indulge in a healthy dose of self-promotion without feeling just a bit paranoid. First, there is the rampant fear that social media sites are commercializing users’ personal information. With its latest IPO offering, Facebook, in particular, has seen a surge of conspiracy theories about it tracking its usersin order to increase advertorial revenue. Then, there is the worry about information leaking out to strangers–a situation exacerbated by specialized “profile-search” engines like ProfileEngine and MyLife.
The most straightforward way to deal with these concerns is to delete or heavily censor your social media accounts. But that comes with the risk of isolating your friends, and may not be all that effective if your information is still cached somewhere.
The best option, some users claim, is to join a distributed social network. These are networks in which user data is not stored in any centralized server, but instead on the user’s own computer.
Traditionally, if you want to see, say, another user’s Facebook profile, your computer has to pass a request to a central server (in this case Facebook’s). The server will then pull out the information and forward it to you. In a distributed network, however, the central server is removed, and the user account passes information directly to another user who requests it. In some cases, the user account can also act as the main server for a private mini-network.
There are some downsides. The set up usually requires hosting space (whether it be Web, Cloud or ISP) and some technical knowledge and skill. However, if you are interested, these open-source programs are designed to help you with the set up and linking.
Despite being still in the testing stages, Diaspora* is arguably the most well-known distributed social network at the moment. The brainchild of four NYU students, Dan Grippi, Maxwell Salzberg, Raphael Sofaer and Ilya Zhitomirskiy, the project was able to fundraise over $200, 000 in 2010 through Kickstarter (Mark Zuckerberg was a donor). The code is open-source and hosted on Github, where it is worked on by volunteer developers.
In Diaspora*, users set up a personalized server, termed “pods”, using the Diaspora* software. This server can then be used to port content from
Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr (and other social platforms in the future), as well as cross-post onto those sites. Users can view and edit this information through an interface that is not unlike those onGoogle+ and Facebook. This offers a bit of homey comfort for those who are seeking something familiar-feeling.
Diaspora* currently has a limited alpha testing server for people to try out the platform without going through the technical finagling. However, access is restricted to those with invites. For the rest of us, there is a good chance that more Diaspora* servers will be available soon. Now that the founders have joined forces with the start-up accelerator Ycombinator, hopefully it won’t be long before the platform becomes more easily accessible.
Emerging around the same time as Diaspora*, Friendica is typically seen as its main “competitor”. (It has a similar structure and architecture.) Despite this, it allows users to integrate contacts from their Diaspora* servers.
Compared to Diaspora*, Friendica’s set up is more user-friendly and accessible. The Friendica site provides extensive guides (with screenshots) for beginners on how to set up the framework, as well as a list of free public servers.
Friendica’s platform feels less streamlined than Diaspora*’s, but (as of now) it offers more functionality. In addition to numerous themes and plugins, Gravatar and OpenID are supported, as well as cross-posting from Twitter, Facebook , Tumblr, Blogger and WordPress. It also features birthday notifications, which is truly a lifesaver for any friendship.
Created by Ian Clarke in July 1999, Freenet feels more like a forum or workspace than a social network. Yet in some ways it fits social network’s ideal: it allows users to communicate with each other without any sort of tracking or censorship. Reportedly, it has been used to distribute contraband material in places where the internet is heavily censored, such as China and the Middle East.
Unlike the previous two, Freenet is not server-based but works through peer-to-peer, which means that each user contribute by carrying a bit of data for the network. The term is now associated with Torrents and online piracy, but it is actually a fairly innocuous way of transferring information quickly and securely. Information is encypted, broken into pieces and then sent through peers, so it is difficult for any information to be leaked out. There is also the option ofdarknet mode, which allows a user to only connect and share information with friends.
The simplicity of Freenet is that it does not need more than an installation program to set up, and no web server is required. However, it was not designed to port to other social media sites, so it has no cross-platform functionality. If you are looking for a secure way to connect to your friends however, Freenet is probably the best option for you.