A couple of weeks ago I wrote about Diaspora, a free software project to create a distributed version of Facebook that gives control back to users. Since then, of course, Facebook-bashing and Diaspora-boosting have become somewhat trendy. Indeed, Diaspora has now soared past its initial $10,000 fund-raising target: at the time of writing, it has raised over $170,000, with 15 days to go. That's amazing, but what's more interesting is the way in which Diaspora has done it.
Of course, the sudden interest of mainstream media has helped, but beyond the arithmetical implications of having lots of people looking at your site, what's important is how the Diaspora team has managed to turn those proverbial eyeballs into practical funds.
It has achieved this by soliciting “pledges” of varying magnitudes, with a corresponding reward for each level:
Pledge $5 or more
Once the software is released as open source, we will send you a CD with diaspora all set up and ready to go, with a note from our team!
Pledge $10 or more
Get a CD, note, and a bunch of cool diaspora stickers
Pledge $25 or more
Get a CD, note, and a bunch of cool diaspora stickers, and a awesome diaspora t-shirt!
Pledge $50 or more
Get all the above stuff, plus 1 month free of our turnkey hosted service (when it becomes available), or free phone support for 1 month if you host your own.
Pledge $100 or more
Get all the above stuff, plus 3 month free of our turnkey hosted service (when it becomes available), or free phone support for 3 months if you host your own.
Pledge $350 or more
Get all the above stuff, plus 1 year free of our turnkey hosted service (when it becomes available), and free phone support for 1 year if you host your own.
Pledge $1,000 or more
LIMITED REWARD 1 of 5 remaining
Get all of the above stuff, plus access to the nightly build server for Diaspora, so you can check out our progress all summer!
Pledge $2,000 or more
sold out 0 of 4 remaining
Get everything above, plus we will send you a brand new computer fully configured so you can host your own Diaspora seed from right under your bed!
So let's look at what's going on here. Notice how for all levels, the offer is of a scarce good: either analogue objects like CDs (the medium is analogue, even if the content isn't), stickers and t-shirts, access to scarce services (support – which is the business model the free software companies typically use) or – at the top end – both. That's important, because the basic “product” of Diaspora – its code – is going to be available for free. This means it's necessary to complement that abundance with a corresponding scarcity.
The other thing that's worth noting is that this is not asking for donations to a pre-existing project, but asking for funding to create that project. That's far less common in the world of software, but in other domains it's more usual.
For example, one of my favourite examples of how artists can thrive not just despite but because of the unrestricted circulation of their songs as digital files is Jill Sobule. Before her last album, she solicited donations in exactly the same way as Diaspora has done – and succeeded in raising a similarly impressive figure, $75,000 in her case. That was only possible because she has a wide enough base of fans, many of whom doubtless discovered her through free downloads. Amazingly, she even adopted a similarly progressive reward scheme, priced according to scarcity:
$10 - Unpolished Rock (but with potential) Level: A free digital download of the album, when it's released.
$25 - Polished Rock Level: An advance copy of the CD. Weeks before the masses.
$50 - Pewter Level: An advance copy and a "Thank You" on the CD.
$100 - Copper Level: All the above, plus a T-shirt saying you're a junior executive producer on the album.
$200 - Bronze Level: Free admission to my shows for 2008.
$250 - Silver Level: All the above, plus a membership to the "Secret Society Producer's Club," which means you'll get a secret password to a website where I'll post some rough tracks, or... something worthwhile.
$500 - Gold Level: This is where it gets good! At the end of my CD, I'll do a fun instrumental track where I'll mention your name and maybe rhyme with it. And if you don't want your name used, you can give me a loved one's instead. What a great gift!
$750 - Gold Doubloons Level: Exactly like the gold level, but you give me more money.
$1,000 - Platinum Level: How would you like to have a theme song written for you? I'll have a song you can put on your answering machine and show off. Again, this could be a gift.
$2,500 - Emerald Level: Mentioned as an executive producer of the album – whoop-di-doo!
$5,000 — Diamond Level: I will come and do a house concert for you. Invite your friends, serve some drinks, bring me out and I sing. Actually, this level is a smart choice economically. I've played many house concerts where the host has charged his guests and made his money back. I'd go for this if I were you.
$10,000 - Weapons-Grade Plutonium Level: You get to come and sing on my CD. Don't worry if you can't sing - we can fix that on our end. Also, you can always play the cowbell.
What's interesting is that this underlines the commonality between writing songs and writing code, and how the same approach to financing can be used for both (something I've written about before.) I think that's important, because it offers a new way of getting free software projects off to a good start. Rather than just hacking and hoping, projects that serve a real need can follow Diaspora's example and seek funding from the start, offering a range of rewards.
Could it be that Diaspora will mark not just a turning point in way people use social networks, regaining control of their personal information, but also in the way free software projects are initiated and sustained?