Journalist chronicles student startup


Daniel Cole

Columnist Jim Dwyer stands in front of the New York Times building with his new book, “More Awesome than Money,” about four NYU undergraduates who attempted to create a new social network.

Dhriti Tandon

“More Awesome than Money,” a book written by New York Times journalist Jim Dwyer, tells the story of Daniel Grippi, Maxwell Salzberg, Raphael Sofaer and Ilya Zhitomirskiy, four NYU alumni who attempted to create a new social network tool during their undergraduate career.

The students’ social network tool, called Diaspora, would allow users to have more control over their personal data and what is released on the Internet.

Dwyer was impressed with the undergraduates’ efforts, which would revolutionize privacy on social networks. He said he was initially inspired after writing about them for The New York Times.

“In 2010, right after Facebook announced new ways to track users on other websites, I heard about four NYU guys who were trying to build an alternative,” Dwyer said. “They wanted to construct tools that would decentralize the network, meaning that data would not be stored on central servers owned by big companies like Facebook, but in smaller nodes or pods that would give the users more control.”

Dwyer’s account of their work in the New York Times article attracted international attention to the undergraduates. This led to $200,000 in fundrasing and a base of 500,000 people waiting for invitations to try the website.

The book was released on Oct. 16. The title, “More Awesome than Money,” is based on the fact that the group’s initiative was not inspired by the vision of making money, but rather something that a technology-driven society could benefit from.

“The four guys wanted to create something useful for the world and give it away,” Dwyer said. “The idea of Diaspora was more awesome than money.”

Collecting sources for his book and learning about the extensive work that went into creating the software was not an easy task for Dwyer — the mechanics of websites and startup culture were completely new areas for him.

Dwyer almost stopped writing the book after a number of disputes among the creators of Diaspora and the tragic death of one, Zhitomirskiy, 18 months into the project.

“I essentially abandoned the book, but, in time, the others returned to working on Diaspora,” Dwyer said. “They eventually turned the project over to a free software foundation, and a community of hackers continues to work on it.”

But Dwyer completed the book, and now the story of Diaspora and its creators is available to the public.

CAS freshman Rishabh Ranawat said the book deos a good job tackling privacy issues on social media.

“The book sums up the gripping quest to personalize user data really well and makes me even more appreciative of their work,” Ranawat said.

Despite the complex dynamics of the group and writing setbacks, Dwyer was still able to convey his message about the uniqueness of the group’s site and its importance to the future of internet privacy.

“The greatest things about the World Wide Web, like the ability to connect and share, have become bound up in an economy of surveillance,” Dwyer said. “Diaspora was utterly improbable.”

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Oct. 20 print edition. Email Dhriti Tandon at [email protected].