Profile: KickStarter

Four Nerds and a Cry to Arms Against Facebook

By JIM DWYER / NYTimes
Published: May 11, 2010

 kickstarter.jpg

 How angry is the world at Facebook for
devouring every morsel of personal information we are willing to feed
it?

A few months back, four geeky college students, living on pizza in a
computer lab downtown on Mercer Street, decided to build a social
network that wouldn’t force people to surrender their privacy to a big
business. It would take three or four months to write the code, and they
would need a few thousand dollars each to live on.

They gave themselves 39 days to raise $10,000, using an online site, Kickstarter,
that helps creative people find support.

 

It turned out that just about all they had to do was whisper their
plans.

“We were shocked,” said one of the four, Dan Grippi, 21. “For some
strange reason, everyone just agreed with this whole privacy thing.”

They announced their project on April 24. They reached their $10,000
goal in 12 days, and the money continues to come in: as of Tuesday
afternoon, they had raised $23,676 from 739 backers. “Maybe 2 or 3
percent of the money is from people we know,” said Max Salzberg, 22.

Working with Mr. Salzberg and Mr. Grippi are Raphael Sofaer, 19, and
Ilya Zhitomirskiy, 20 — “four talented young nerds,” Mr. Salzberg says
— all of whom met at New York University’s Courant Institute.
They have called their project Diaspora* and intend to distribute
the software free, and to make the code openly available so that other
programmers can build on it. As they describe it, the Diaspora* software
will let users set up their own personal servers, called seeds, create
their own hubs and fully control the information they share. Mr. Sofaer
says that centralized networks like Facebook are not necessary. “In our
real lives, we talk to each other,” he said. “We don’t need to hand our
messages to a hub. 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.”

The terms of the bargain people make with social networks — you swap
personal information for convenient access to their sites — have been shifting,
with the companies that operate the networks collecting ever more
information about their users. That information can be sold to
marketers. Some younger people are becoming
more cautious
about what they post. “When you give up that data,
you’re giving it up forever,” Mr. Salzberg said. “The value they give us
is negligible in the scale of what they are doing, and what we are
giving up is all of our privacy.”

The Diaspora* group was inspired to begin their project after hearing a talk
by Eben
Moglen
, a law professor at Columbia University, who described the
centralized social networks as “spying for free,” Mr. Salzberg said.

The four students met in a computer room at N.Y.U., and have spent
nearly every waking minute there for months. They understand the appeal
of social networks.

“Certainly, as nerds, we have nowhere else to go,” Mr. Salzberg said.
“We’re big nerds.”

“My social life has definitely collapsed in favor of maintaining a
decent GPA and doing this,” Mr. Sofaer said.

A teacher and digital media researcher at N.Y.U., Finn Brunton, said that their project
— which does not involve giant rounds of venture capital financing
before anyone writes a line of code — reflected “a return of the classic
geek means of production: pizza and ramen and guys sleeping under the
desks because it is something that it is really exciting and
challenging.”

And the demand for a social network that gives users control is strong,
Mr. Brunton said. “Everyone I talk to about this says, ‘Oh my God, I’ve
been waiting for someone to do something like that.’ ”

There have been at least two other attempts at decentralized networks,
Mr. Brunton said, but he thought the Diaspora* group had a firmer plan.
Its quick success in raising money, he said, showed the discontent
over the state of privacy on the social sites. “We will have to see how
widely this will be adopted by the non-nerds,” Mr. Brunton said. “But I
don’t know a single person in the geek demographic who is not freaked
out” by large social networks and cyber warehouses of information.

The Diaspora* crew has no doubts about the sprawling strengths and
attractions of existing social networks, having gotten more than 2,000
followers of “joindiaspora” on Twitter in just a few weeks.

“So many people think it needs to exist,” Mr. Salzberg said. “We’re
making it because we want to use it.”

E-mail: dwyer@nytimes.com

This article has been revised to reflect the
following correction:

Correction: May 14, 2010

The About New York column on Wednesday, about four
students at New York University who are trying to create a new social
network, referred incorrectly to Finn Brunton, who said their plan was a
“return of the classic geek means of production.” He is a teacher and
researcher at N.Y.U., but he has not taught these four students.

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