There was a time – not too long ago – when a new social media contender appeared on the horizon. It was supposed to be the first real threat to Facebook, and it was called Diaspora (I’m not really sure what they were thinking when they chose the name. While the word technically can simply mean a scattering of people, it’s common usage implies a scattering that takes place against the people’s will).
At first, Diaspora got a lot of press. The guys proposing it hyped it as a privacy-minded alternative to Facebook – a social network that wouldn’t sell off our private data to the highest bidder. This proposal was well received. The developers asked the world for money for startup costs via Kickstarter. They initially asked for $10,000. They ended up receiving more than $200,000. All this without writing a single line of code.
I watched Diaspora with interest, as it sounded like a fine idea to me. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that I thought the world could use an alternative to Facebook. I was also intrigued by the fact that Diaspora intended their code (when they finally wrote it) to be open source, thereby allowing us to run it ourselves on our own servers if we so desired.
But then Google+ hit the interwebs. It was immediately given the title of Facebook killer, and it seemed like everybody was talking about G+ for weeks.
And nobody – but nobody – seemed to be talking about Diaspora anymore. I even asked about it a couple of times, at Google+ as well as at Twitter, but no one seemed to have heard anything from or about Diaspora since Google+ launched. As far as I could tell, the project seemed to be pretty much dead in the water.
Until Diaspora reappeared, just a couple weeks ago. I first noticed activity on the official Diaspora Twitter account, shortly after which I received an email inviting me to join in on the beta. Of course, I did so.
And I have been greatly disappointed. Not by the software but by its user base. See, Diaspora had a real shot at the limelight, and if they had just gotten off the pot after they received twenty times the funding they asked for, they may have given Facebook a run for its money. But Google beat them to the punch, and it was a serious beating.
Fact is, the overwhelming majority of Facebook users are really quite happy with Facebook, warts and all. When it comes to all the various privacy issues, the average user just doesn’t give a crap. And for most of those who do give a crap, Google+ serves as a perfectly adequate alternative.
So when Diaspora finally hit the scene, they were no longer the only alternative to Facebook. In fact, they were now just a feature-poor substitute offered by a relatively unknown company with comparatively no resources at their disposal.
And their pickings were pretty slim. Of the many, many people who actually want to participate in some form of social network, Facebook had already sewn up the majority of the pie. Of the remainder, Google+ met the needs and/or desires of all but the most rabidly paranoid of the tinfoil hat-wearing crowd, who (sadly) have flocked to Diaspora and claimed it as their own.
As you may have guessed, finding a rational discussion at Diaspora is virtually impossible. Like previously mentioned Quora, Diaspora’s narrow and esoteric user base has led to Rule By Douchebaggerati. I have tried a few times to engage people at Diaspora, and the universal response has been attempts to pick fights with me. Kind of sad and laughable at the same time, especially the latest instance.
Unsurprisingly, a fair amount of the ‘discussion’ at Diaspora revolves around Facebook- and/or Google- bashing. My latest exposure to extreme douchbaggery occurred when a guy claimed to ‘know’ of Google’s evil, due to the vast amount of ‘research’ he’s done on the subject. I politely (really – I worked at it) asked him to share his research.
I got no response from the Google scholar, but I did get numerous responses from the rest of the tinfoil hat-wearing crowd. Their eventual consensus was (I’m not kidding) that the ‘truth’ about Google is only meaningful to those who do the research themselves. Seriously. One of them even went so far as to reference a series of ‘scholarly’ works on the subject of research and how it only really ‘works’ when we do it for ourselves (I’m not really sure how this works. How far back along the research trail do we have to go ourselves? Should I start each day by inventing language?). So it’s not that they can’t back up their claims, but that they choose not to. For my own good. And they were quite happy to explain ad nauseam the reasons for this choice. I don’t know if they’re intensely dumb or if they just think I am.
Which got me to thinking (about Google, that is). I have, in fact, wondered about Google. About whether or not it is evil. My initial assumption was that it is. I mean – it stands to reason, doesn’t it? It’s an enormous, ridiculously wealthy and powerful corporation – how could it not be evil?
Being the kind of guy I am, though, I took the time to look into it. I figured an enormous, wealthy, powerful evil empire would leave some sort of conclusive, verifiable proof of evildoings. So I looked for them. And I didn’t find any. So I looked harder. And I still didn’t find any. So I looked even harder. And still nothing.
What I found was a company that has made a fortune off of advertising. One way in which they have done this is by gathering data about their users (us) and selling it to the highest bidder. As far as I can tell, Google has never tried to hide this. And while the data they gather (data we freely hand over to them, by the way) is – technically – private data, it’s not private in the way most people think. Google doesn’t sell our account numbers to anyone. Nor do they sell our email addresses. In fact, they don’t sell anything that could be called PII (personally identifiable information). Not even here in Massachusetts, the home of insanely stringent PII legislation. The kind of data Google gathers and sells about us is data that we generate but that we don’t generally have a use for ourselves.
Years ago, my mother was a regular participant in the Neilsen Ratings. Every so often, she would get a package in the mail from Neilsen. It would contain some forms, a pencil and a ridiculous fee (I’m pretty sure it was $1). For the following couple of weeks, she would religiously (and painfully honestly) record every television program watched in our household. When the forms were completed, she would send them back to Neilsen. The idea behind this was to find out what shows people were actually watching so that programming and advertising dollars could be spent appropriately. I don’t know if the system actually worked, but it came close enough to make all involved happy.
This is the sort of data Google gathers. The kind of data advertisers really care about, but that is not terribly meaningful to most of us average users.
And Google doesn’t force this upon us. If you don’t want to give them your personal data, all you have to do is refrain from using their products and services. There are other search engines out there. There are other email providers (actually, if you want to use Gmail but don’t want Google to gather your personal information while you do so, all you have to do is pay for it. It’s the free version that gets paid for though data). On the other hand, if you’re willing to let Google gather and use your personal data, all those products and services are the payment you receive for the deal.
The other thing I found in my travels is scores – no, hundreds (possibly even thousands) of people who know that Google is evil. They know because they’ve seen proof. They’ve walked the walk, they’ve done the research, and they know – beyond doubt – that Google is The Evil Empire. And every time I have encountered one of these people I have made the same simple request: that they share this knowledge with me.
Not a single one of them has done so. In fact, most of them get quite angry as part of the process of not doing so. Usually I get told how painfully obvious it is – how the universe is practically littered with the proof of it – but no one has actually gone so far as to show me the proof they profess to have, or point me to the proof they profess to have seen. Other times (like the recent one mentioned above) I get lengthy justifications as to why they are not sharing what they know (always that they are not – never that they cannot. An important distinction).
At first I wondered if Google was just that good at covering up their evildoing. They’d have to be better at it than the CIA (who’ve been eating and drinking cover-up for generations), but that wouldn’t be impossible. Just unlikely.
But that didn’t make sense in light of all the people who have seen evidence of Google’s wrongdoing (they have! Really!). Instead, it would mean that of all those people, not one of them was willing to put their money where their mouth is (I mean, they’re all able to, right? It’s that they’re not willing to). Of all those people who know how evil Google is, not a single one of them is willing to produce any real proof of it. Not a single conclusive, verifiable piece of evidence. Not one.
Of course, the other possibility is that they’re all a bunch of asshats and Google is just a legitimate business.