Ilya Zhitomirskiy, a driving force behind Facebook rival, spoke recently about its birth.
San Francisco (TheStreet) -- Recently, we interviewed Ilya Zhitomirskiy, a co-founder of Diaspora, an open, nonprofit network social media site. Although still in development, it has considerable buzz for its un-Facebook-like dedication to privacy and user controls.
Throughout the interview, Zhitomirskiy spoke with passion about the future of Diaspora and the exciting potential of social media. "I definitely jump out of bed and rush to work super excited to code every day," he said.
The future he spoke so excitedly about will have to charge forward without him. In Tuesday's early morning hours Zhitomirskiy was found dead in his San Francisco apartment. The cause of death was not immediately known, although police have said they were called to his home after a reported suicide attempt.
He was 22.
Zhitomirskiy, with three fellow students at New York University -- Raphael Sofaer, Dan Grippi and Max Salzberg -- initially began collaborating with a product by MakerBot, a Brooklyn-based pioneer of digital fabrication technology, also known as 3-D printing. The team of hackers/makers would spend all-nighters watching their designs print up in plastic facsimile.
The idea for Diaspora evolved, Zhitomirskiy said, because the classmates so enjoyed their collaborations that they needed some other activity to keep their creativity flowing.
"We definitely had our ears open for interesting things to do," he said.
Inspired by the work of Columbia University Professor Eben Moglen, founder of the Software Freedom Law Center -- in particular his proposal for the "Freedom Box," an affordable, personal server running on open source software -- Zhitomirskiy and his team set their sights on social media.
Although Zhitomirskiy diplomatically avoided a direct reference, it was clear that he and his team of Davids intended to go up against the Goliath known as Facebook.
"Being young and immersed in social media space we thought, 'Hmmm, wouldn't it be fun to try and build a sort of infrastructure and rethink it."
Those ideas led to a pitch for $10,000 in seed money from the crowdsourcing site Kickstarter. The idea apparently resonated and they far exceeded the initial goal, collecting pledges of more than $200,000.
"It was a really phenomenal amount," Zhitomirskiy said. "Not only was it the money, it was phenomenal to think that that many people wanted the underlying structure of social networks to change."
Word of mouth continued to spread and Diaspora gained a reputation as a potential "Facebook killer."
In particular, the fledgling service gained buzz within the "circle of free culture folks and the people who are into democratizing many things on the Internet," Zhitomirskiy said.
Zhitomirskiy and his co-founders moved to California and started working on a prototype and its underlying code, which was open source.
Unlike the centralized approach of Facebook, they developed a "federated" system of servers, which they called pods, capable of personalization as well as connecting to the larger network.
Zhitomirskiy stressed that diaspora's success depended on serving the needs of the tech community and mainstream users.
"The technical people can see what we are doing," he said. "But we are slowly building up and getting more average users until we are comfortable that they will find it useful and continue using it ... One of the values we hold very strongly is that it needs to be usable and as easy as the sort of the old ways of social networking."
In recent days, Diaspora faced progress and setbacks. On the positive, it was sending out "alpha" invites, a major step toward a full and wide launch, and applications were starting to go live and be shared among users.
Those successes, however, were tempered by increasing financial woes and a recent plea to supporters for additional funding.
Zhitomirskiy said his goal with Diaspora was to build a service that "doesn't treat individuals as products."
"The reason we are building all of this is we want people to share," he said. "Instead of conversing about how things should happen, we are working to make it better. We are working for the dream we want to achieve and the world we want to live in and we are super focused on listening to our users. That's what's so special about it. They are the ones who have gotten us here."
"Change comes from hard work and from doing things," he added. "Not just talking about the way the world should be."
--Written by Joe Mont in Boston.
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