Mini Digital Ethnographic Study: Diaspora

[First Published November, 2011]


Diaspora is a distributed social network running on a collection of open source personal webservers across the Internet. Diaspora is a community of passionate users who control their own data, control who sees it and who can harvest it. Diaspora is a project that I have been observing from a distance since the announcement by four NYU college students in 2010 that they wanted to to build a Freedom Box and make a step towards changing how we use social networks. Diaspora used crowdsourced funding via KickStarter to raise over $200,000 which allowed the developers the financial stability to dedicate themselves to the project. Diaspora is free (“as in freedom”).

In this brief ethnographic study of the Diaspora community, I have employed a combination of participant observation and direct interaction with users in order to better understand the community and its members. I have posted questions to the community and received a considerable volume of responses given my status as a new (and consequently unconnected) member. I have attempted to define what it means to be a Diaspora member and what it is that drives people to join the community.

A Flickr slideshow of the images referred to in this study can be found here:

Ethical Issues

Given that Diaspora provides the potential to limit who sees the information that you choose to share, I have avoided using any user posts or data that came from private sources and have opted instead to publish only data that is specifically marked as being public. Data produced with digital publishing tools simplifies any ethical decisions for an ethnographer but does not remove the responsibility to always consider any possible, wider implications of material that is published. With this in mind I have chosen to anonymize any users data and avoid direct quotation where possible. Any user names or avatars that appear in graphics have been blurred to further protect the identities of those involved.


In researching the nascent Diaspora community prior to joining, I became aware of a strong sense that the development team considers this project to be something of a social movement rather than a mere social network. Co-founding developer Daniel Grippi uses the phrase “a spark to start a fire” in the second video below. This language sounds highly politicized and obviously hopeful for great things to come. Since joining I have frequently noticed this same sentiment from Diaspora members themselves and must confess that I hold similar views and aspirations for the success of such a movement. Hine tells us that “ethnography is appealing for its depth of description and its lack of reliance on apriori hypotheses”, (Hine C. 2000. “The virtual objects of ethnography”). My sentiments therefore have caused me some difficulty in remaining fully objective in my research, and it is something that I have been continually conscious of and careful to avoid. That said, the initial motivation for the development of Diaspora is indeed based on a politicized view that users have rights and are not just a product to be sold to marketing companies. Diaspora adheres to the Computers, Freedom, and Privacy’s Social Network Users’ Bill of Rights. Its very beginnings are inspired by Columbia University law professor Eben Moglens now famous lecture “Freedom in The Cloud’, first presented at NYU in early 2010 in which he describes centralized social networks as offering “spying for free” (from Wikipedia). The projects main tenants of Choice, Ownership and Simplicity (see home page on serve to empower its users in a manor unheard of amongst profit driven social networks. The following videos are what I believe to be key points in the emergence of Diaspora and what I hope will be a new movement for user empowerment online.

Eben Moglen’s “Freedom in The Cloud’ presentation at NYU Feb 5 2010. In this lecture Moglen introduces his concept of the Freedom Box, a device like a personal webserver that allows the consumption of network services without the traditional dangers. This lecture has a profound affect on the Diaspora founding members.

Diapora founding members report to the Internet Society’s New York Chapter on their work inspired by Moglen’s ideas. NYU Apr 22 2010.

Diapora pre-release promotional video showing the growth of the project and some cool features.

Arrival Story

Taking the title of the introduction to Gatson and Zweerinks paper “Ethnography online: ‘natives’ practicing and inscribing community” to heart, i.e. that there there is “no such thing as non-participant observation”, I decided that the best approach would be to create a new account and dive right into the community as any newcomer would. I posted the Diasporian equivalent of “Hello World” to my stream and announced ‘Hi, I’m #newhere’. The use of this hashtag is something of a debut for new members, an announcement that they are ready to participate, meet and interact with others and begin to the form bonds that will connect them to the community. I’ve speculated during this course that because of the ease involved in joining a virtual community, the traditional ethnographic arrival is less meaningful until the active creation of “connections” (ie friendships, followings or any one of the many terms used by social networking sites) occurs. The following Flickr set shows this process as a series of steps. It is in a sense my own arrival into the community and the beginnings of my real membership. In the spirit of the community, these images are released under a Creative Commons, Attribution license. The wordpress instance on which this blog post is written does not allow the insertion of iframe or embed code, but you can see a slide show of the set here:…

Or a direct link (useful for viewing annotations and commenting) here:

What is a community? Is Diaspora a Community?

During the course of the last two weeks we have been discussing the notion of community and how it relates to groups of people whose primary method of communication is digital. Indeed we have questioned whether such groups are indeed communities at all or whether they are simply loose collectives of people gathering around a common focus.

In his book The Virtual Community, Howard Rheingold references graduate student Marc A Smiths work on the concept of collective goods as a useful tool to determine whether a particular group constitutes a community. “Every cooperative group of people exists in the face of a competitive world because that group of people recognizes there is something valuable that they can gain only by banding together. Looking for a group’s collective goods is a way of looking for the elements that bind isolated individuals into a community”, (Rheingold, 1993). Smith proposes that the collective goods which create a community are social network capital, knowledge capital, and communion. When I first read this quote I became very excited because although I have only recently become a Diaspora member, I have already encountered or observed these phenomena at work. From its very inception, Diaspora has been a group based not around some minor theme or activity (not to say that such groups cannot themselves be considered communities), but rather focuses on a momentousness and potentially paradigm shifting goal, to empower the user and move control of the network away from traditional structures. In this sense it is a textbook example of a gemeinschaft community. Its members are generally technologically savvy and seem to be willing to help or offer advice readily to new members. In my “#newhere” introduction, I asked the community what it is that interests them most about Diaspora. Obviously the reach of such a question is fairly limited given my new arrival and the very small number of connections that I had, however the question did produce several interesting responses from other members. Almost every answer that I received focused to some degree on the facts stated in Diaspora member David McCauly’s now widely circulated Dozen Reasons to Switch to Diaspora. The typical user (in my experience) is well informed and interested in subjects related to the Free Libre Open Source Software development movement. They have found a place online which cherishes and strictly upholds these values. In their fellow members they may see many traits that they recognize within themselves, and from this there quickly grows a sense of connection, or the emergence of a shared communal identity. One user response to my post was particularly succinct, giving the following reasons paraphrased here: it is non-commercial, open source, protects privacy and has some pretty interesting people.


Given my personal interest in the subject matter, I have attempted to remain as unbiased as possible during the course of this study; however my findings do indeed appear to echo my preconceptions. The Diaspora community is composed of many unique individuals, all of whom are connected through their passion for social freedom and personal empowerment. They are for the most part highly technically literate and vocal on subjects relating to the use and misuse of technology. As a group, they represent and share the ideological viewpoint that it is not only possible, but essential that we “provide privacy in normal life, and safe communications for people seeking to preserve their freedom in oppressive regimes”, ( Again I am reminded that an ethnographer should attempt to ignore any preconceived notions and to remain as objective as possible, however I must admit to identifying strongly with these statements and to holding very similar views myself; perhaps I too have found a new home online…


Diaspora Foundation Homepage

Hine, C. (2000) The virtual objects of ethnography.

Rheingold, H. (1993) The Virtual Community. (online, retrieved 01.11.11)

Gatson, S and Zweerink, A. (2004) Ethnography online: ‘natives’ practising and inscribing community.

Wikipedia Diaspora page, (retrieved 01.11.2011)