Journalistic account of an ambitious, ill-fated attempt at creating a privacy-oriented alternative to Facebook.
New York Times columnist Dwyer (co-author: 102 Minutes: The Untold Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers, 2004, etc.) lays out the improbable narrative of Diaspora, a project hatched by four New York University students that too quickly gained attention worldwide among digital cognoscenti and “shot like a comet through the venture capital wings of Silicon Valley, but flamed out.” The author explores the strong personalities behind it, quintessential millennials with an intense focus on the virtual world (and quirky pursuits like Burning Man). Unfortunately, the most idealistic of the four became so overwhelmed that he committed suicide at age 22, a looming tragedy that checks Dwyer’s tone of futurist optimism. At first, Diaspora’s bright prospects were due to its open-source software code and a promise of user-controlled data. Suspicious about how Facebook “hoarded and peddled personal information without so much as asking,” the founders attracted supporters worldwide. An initial Kickstarter campaign allowed them to set up shop in San Francisco and spend a year coding; however, the four principals thwarted their own ambitions, starting with a disastrous meeting with a venture capital firm that they alienated with a $10 million “ask.” As Dwyer notes, “Diaspora did not fall under the standard rubric for evaluating startups.” Despite his positive spin (he followed the project from its early days as a columnist), the project never seemed close to practicality. As the rambling narrative follows the crew through many tech-geek happenings and increasingly tense board meetings, the author chronicles how Diaspora’s most promising components were ruthlessly emulated by competitors: “Google came out with circles months after Diaspora had introduced the aspects settings, each of them a digital corral…it was a perfect example of how quickly digital innovation could lose its novelty.” Ultimately, the increasingly estranged partners entered a venture-capitalist incubator program and were advised to abandon the project, though volunteers continue to develop its source code.
Slowly paced, familiar narrative of tech dreams and youthful hubris.