Mini Digital Ethnographic Study: Diaspora


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.


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.


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)

  • Neil David Buchanan says:

    Hi Daniel, fascinating study especially as I remember you talking about it on Twitter and the name “Diaspora” really stuck. Is the choice of name discussed at all as it has powerful connotations; a dispersed people who once shared a common homeland and who often express deeply rooted cultural needs to recreate that ancestry. Do you feel that in the set-up of the group there is a harking back at all to a concept of a more utopian time?

    The historically infused “taste” was heightened for me by the language and this, I think, connects with Carol and Jeremy’s discussion of discourse analysis. Diaspora seems to be tapping into an almost 60′s like culture with some slogans and invocations of freedom. An IT faculty member once said to me that you can have all the freedom you want online but if you don’t own the hardware (servers etc), it’s based on someone’s willingness to let you have your freedom. Do you feel that this is relevant here? I’m asking because I live in the Arabian Gulf and we are very conscious here of censorship (though the UK PM notably did not include this part of the world in his criticism of Russia and China…) and also the fragility of the web. When I was doing IDEL, a cable was cut and we were suddenly catapulted back to a time reminiscent of dial up connections and slow, slow downloads. The Arab Spring, despite Western media frenzy over the “Twitter Revolution” highlighted how things can be switched off for all but the most technically savvy.

    Sorry to ramble on! But your thoughtful study triggered a screed of thoughts in my head and I think you’ve raised some crucial issues as to how we perceive ourselves and our presences online. Your highlighting of the newbie experience reminded me of joining a new place of work when you’re asked to stand up and say a few words about yourself! Diaspora seemed quite a friendly place to do that!

    Thanks again for opening up this debate and introducing an artefact I had never heard of!

  • Austin Tate says:

    Thanks Daniel This is a very key area… and one that we need to educate more people about and make them more aware of the issues about the intrusions that are creeping up on everyone.

    I did spend the time to watch the Eben Moglen Freedom in the Cloud video which is a nicely presented and eye opening introduction. He laces into Zuckerberg in an entirely appropriate way in my view. I liked his reminder that X-Windows was conceived as giving the server at the user end… to serve and control access. I will tweet the link.

    I love his references to Oceania and personally served information served by YOUR server under YOUR control on requests as you feel appropriate. This reminded me of some work we did 20 years ago on a user owned and portable personal profile… so I will blog a little on this… thanks

  • Jen Ross says:

    Daniel, you’ve done a great job here. I particularly like how you handled the ethics of the study and your decisions about anonymising, and how up front and reflexive you were about your personal stake in the ethos of the community. Your concerns about bias and preconceptions are always worth attending to in any research context, but, as Hine puts is, ethnography is no longer usually seen as being objective in the way you describe: “Rather than being the records of objectively observed and pre-existing cultural objects, ethnographies have been reconceived as written and unavoidably constructed accounts of objects created through disciplinary practices and the ethnographer’s embodied and reflexive engagement” (Hine, p.42).

    The ‘arrival story’ screenshots were very evocative – nicely done. I wondered about your decision to study the group ‘covertly’ (in the sense that I don’t think you mentioned your ethnographic work in your profile) – did you have a sense at the outset that you might choose to stay around in this community as ‘yourself’ and not just as a researcher?

    I also found myself thinking about the relative newness of this community – it seems to be a space where not a lot of conflict has emerged, and I wonder if you think that it’s only a matter of time before clashes surface, or if there is something about this group that will facilitate consensus (perhaps the strength of the shared ideology you mention).

    Anyway, really nice work – I thoroughly enjoyed this.

  • Grace Elliott says:

    Hi Daniel,

    I hadn’t heard of diaspora before. It sounds very exciting. I’m not getting access to the videos at the moment but I’ll try again later. Do you see this as being an alternative to fb?

  • Carol Jane Collins says:

    Daniel, this was so interesting. I too am attracted to the political aims of this project given how apparent it is becoming as to the extent to which Web 2.0 is not only lacking in freedom by the way it captures our information, but eerily combines intrusiveness with rampant commercialism. I thought the following image – – said it all!

    There was some interesting stuff about last year’s SXSW ( conference in the Guardian:

    ‘The big idea O’Reilly is touting is “sensor-driven collective intelligence”, but since he coined the term “Web 2.0″, he seems resigned to people labelling this new phase “Web 3.0″. If Web 2.0 was the moment when the collaborative promise of the internet seemed finally to be realised – with ordinary users creating instead of just consuming, on sites from Flickr to Facebook to Wikipedia – Web 3.0 is the moment they forget they’re doing it. When the GPS system in your phone or iPad can relay your location to any site or device you like, when Facebook uses facial recognition on photographs posted there, when your financial transactions are tracked, and when the location of your car can influence a constantly changing, sensor-driven congestion-charging scheme, all in real time, something has qualitatively changed. You’re still creating the web, but without the conscious need to do so. “Our phones and cameras are being turned into eyes and ears for applications,” O’Reilly has written. “Motion and location sensors tell where we are, what we’re looking at, and how fast we’re moving . . . Increasingly, the web is the world – everything and everyone in the world casts an ‘information shadow’, an aura of data, which when captured and processed intelligently, offers extraordinary opportunity and mindbending implications.”‘

    I heard someone talking the other day about keeping a handle on students’ ‘digital footprint’, including when they swipe in and out of, say, the library. So, as O’Reilly says, ‘the web is the world’

    I like this notion of Diaspora taking back autonomy and thinking about social networking ethically. We recently introduced a new management system to deal with all student information and its been a disaster, so I hear one dept are running the old system under the wire. Perhaps, given the current Occupy movement, people are trying in their little way to take some of the power back!

  • Thanks all for your interesting comments. I’ll address them individually below. It’s good to see such interest in this topic.

    It is an interesting choice of name but I think they actually regret it now. The original idea was for Diaspora pods to spread over the Internet, almost organically. The project logo of dandelion seeds blowing off in the wind really captures this idea well. However I think the name doesn’t really capture the concept of connections very well. The developers make a brief mention of this in the second video (which is admittedly quite technical and probably difficult to view for non programmers).

    I think there has always been a counter culture working to promote real freedom (rather than the supposed “freedom” offered by free market globalization). The emergence of services like Facebook and their dodgy practices have highlighted the problems to a wider audience, so perhaps its a question of more people tuning in rather than a resurgence of an old idea. You’re right that freedom is often a fragile luxury and it would be nice to think that Diaspora can help this but it is still quite easy for oppressive regime to disable or block such services. Still, it’s a step in the right direction and hopefully just the first of many.

    Thanks Austin. Glad to introduce you to Moglen, he is one of my heroes. I know you are interested in Second Life; I actually discovered him myself by chatting with a random stranger in SL! You’re right, Zuckerburg deserves all that and more!

    Thanks for pointing out Hines observations about objectivity, I suppose I missed the point but it’s good to know. I really did wonder how it could be possible to immerse oneself in a community and still remain an objective observer. Actually I did mention the study in my profile when I posed the question to the community, since I thought it would be the best way to avoid any ethical dilemmas down the line. I suspect you’re right about the newness being an issue, but I do hope that the bonds are strong enough to make this succeed; only time will tell I suppose.

    It is exciting isn’t it! Personally I’d like to see an end to FB but as i understand it, that’s not the aim of the developers. They claim to be going after a different space. It would really be a David and Goliath situation anyway and would probably result in Diaspora being crushed somehow. Still, we can hope!

    Cheers Carol, brilliant picture! You’re right, it is getting scary now. Everything we do produces data in some way. I had a similar conversation with a colleague on Friday about behavioural targeting; we are doing some similar research and have both noticed highly specific advertising everywhere we go online lately. It is very easy to forget that we generate this data, and the location based stuff is downright Orwellian when you consider its potential for monitoring and profiling. Whenever I speak with people about this topic the response usually goes along the lines of “well I have nothing to hide so why worry about it?”. But I think that is really missing the point. Illegality isn’t the issue, and the real dangers probably haven’t even been realised yet. I’m with you, lets take the power back!

  • Jeremy Keith Knox says:

    This is a really detailed study Daniel, and I find the ideas behind the Diaspora community fascinating, particularly the idea of an undercurrent social movement. As Neil notes, I think it would be really interesting to conduct a discourse analysis type study, especially on some of the videos, and within the discussions. Lots of fascinating links to follow here, particularly Moglens, thanks. And a super visual aspect to the arrival story, the idea of ‘steps’ that you describe works brilliantly with a slideshow.

    On the Facebook stuff, some MSc people might have caught Norm Friesen’s excellent talk last year on this paper:

  • Thanks Jeremy,
    Discourse analysis is a new concept for me but having done some preliminary reading I’d definitely agree. Given more time it would be very interesting to look at Diaspora in such a light. Thanks too for the link. Having worked as a web developer since the late 90s and implemented many ecommerce solutions, there are no new ideas there for me but I am delighted that a wider audience is beginning to notice that they are in fact the product rather than the customer. Perhaps its another spark to start a fire!