From left, Daniel Grippi, Ilya Zhitomirskiy, Maxwell Salzberg, and Raphael Sofaer.Photo: Jason Madara

In August, I sat down with the founders of the new social-networking system Diaspora*. Earlier that day, they’d given me a peek at the prototype for the service, which looked familiar: It had “status statements” and comments and photos, displayed on a clean, neutral interface.

But as the name suggests, their project was intended less as an imitation of Facebook than as an escape route from it—a path to freedom for those who had come to fear the dark side of the social network. In the years since Facebook launched (and long before Aaron Sorkin decided to take a whack at it), the service had begun to feel unsettling, sinister, less a benign link to friends and more a stealth database, open to all takers.

Diaspora*—if it worked—would do everything Facebook did. But users would own their data. If they wished, they could run their own servers. There would be no data-mining. No whiplash privacy protocols. And no Mark Zuckerberg.

Instead, users would be relying on Maxwell Salzberg, 23; Ilya Zhitomirskiy, 20; Daniel Grippi, 21; and Raphael Sofaer, 19. Four geeks who met at NYU’s Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences, the friends have been in San Francisco all summer, coding in teams, often from 9 a.m. until 9 p.m., trying to ignore the skeptics who call Diaspora* “vaporware”: a dream of code that will never come true.

Their project began last February, inspired by a speech by free-software activist Eben Moglen. In late April, Salzberg uploaded a proposal on the fund-raising site Kickstarter, describing Diaspora* (the asterisk became a dandelion seed in the logo) as “the privacy-aware, personally controlled, do-it-all open-source social network.” Their goal was $10,000. Instead, they got coverage in the New York Times and $200,641 from 6,479 donors.

“The attention almost paralyzed us,” Salzberg tells me. Nonetheless, they flew west to begin “the ultimate summer project.”

Over Thai food, we chat about online intimacy, a phenomenon whose growth paralleled their own adolescence. “We’re doing this because we like social networking,” insists Salzberg, although they all admit to a native caution about their generation’s tendency toward the overshare. “We just don’t want it to come with all this other stuff. Crap you just don’t realize was there—that we didn’t always realize was there. The stuff that isn’t worth giving your whole life away for!”

Of course, like any creative collaboration, Diaspora* is itself a social network: four young men with slightly different visions of what they’re creating. Salzberg is the chatterbox and the promoter, worrying in circles, his cardigan sleeves tugged around his fists. Zhitomirskiy is “the most tinfoil hat about privacy,” an idealist fascinated by artificial intelligence and Warholian social experiments. Grippi, in skinny jeans and greaser hairdo, is a pragmatist who became fascinated with hands-on problem solving. And Sofaer, at 19, is the bratty younger brother, puncturing pretensions. (“I hate the asterisk,” he says. “You can quote me on that.”)

Yet the four share a set of values, one that reflects the thinking of a rising wave of young coders, a striking contrast with the jackpot-seeking entrepreneurs of the late nineties. They’re deeply concerned about privacy. They’re members of the “free culture” movement, dedicated to creative sharing online. They believe in “open source”: that computer code should be made public and shared, so it can be collaboratively improved. And they are very much about the power of doing it yourself, by hand—a hacker’s ideology of technological self-reliance, a philosophical stance they hope to spread to the “ordinary user.”

Loosely put, their influences include things like the hacker collectives Noisebridge (in San Francisco) and Resistor (in Brooklyn), cult magazines like Make (mission statement: “We celebrate your right to tweak, hack, and bend any technology to your own will”), and thinkers including Cory Doctorow and Clay Shirky. Like other young visionaries such as Moot (who created the chatboard 4Chan at 15), Andrey Ternovskiy (the Russian teenager who founded Chatroulette at 17), and Linus Torvalds (who created Linux, the open-source operating system now used in millions of computers, at 22), they see themselves as skilled laborers in a social emergency, nudging society in a better direction.

“‘Do it now or do it never’—that’s kind of how we operate,” says Salzberg.

Diaspora wasn’t the foursome’s first collaboration. That would be the Makerbot, a 3-D printer that builds objects by squirting thin layers of laminate, a kit they got from Make in its beta stages. Last fall, when Salzberg and Grippi became officers of a programming club at NYU, they began hosting antic weekly hacking sessions, hoping to stimulate membership. The friends bonded while baking circuit boards on a hot plate past 3 a.m. Then they printed out a shot glass and poured a celebratory shot—of Maker’s Mark.

The project inflamed their desire to create something more ambitious. But they didn’t know what that would be until the next February, when Eben Moglen gave a lecture titled “Freedom in the Cloud.” A professor of law and legal history at Columbia Law School and the founding director and chairman of the Software Freedom Law Center, Moglen is an intellectual celebrity to the hacker community. The room was packed and buzzing.

What Moglen presented was less an abstract theory than a beautiful, hypnotic manifesto—a puckish meditation aimed at waking listeners from their torpor. He described a world in which the fantastic possibilities of the Internet, its once-great freedom and creativity, had been curdled, truncated, within a few years. Gullible civilians—the ordinary users of Facebook, iPhones, and Gmail—had given themselves up to the spymasters. Because they didn’t understand their own machines, or code itself, they’d been brainwashed into believing this was a fair trade, convinced their natural role was to be clients, reliant on servers. In order to gain access to online intimacy, they’d been trained to accept (in his sardonic refrain) “spying—for free!”

At the center of the speech was a call to arms, aimed at those who had the tools ordinary users lacked. Geeks spoke the language that made things happen. (There’s a reason some coders call programs “incantations” and “daemons.”) These powers could catalyze freedom, rather than take it away. “What we need is to make a thing that is so greasy there will never be another social-networking platform again,” Moglen announced, to applause. “Right? Can we do it? Yeah. Absolutely. In fact, if you don’t have a date on Friday night, let’s just have a hackfest and get it done.”

“We need to learn to see privacy as more than ‘the one secret I don’t want anyone to know.’ ”

The four friends were electrified. Moglen was speaking not only to the make-it-yourself impulse of their club, but to the utopian, communal roots of computer science in the sixties. He described what he called a “Freedom Box,” a handheld device that would enable users to carry their data with them and unplug it at will. Allowing users to share with one another as they did on Facebook, Moglen said, should be a breeze, something any decent programmer could pull off—a bunch of “PHP doodads.”

Raphael Sofaer’s older brother Mike, a software engineer, was visiting from San Francisco. After the speech, he listened as the four undergraduates raved excitedly for hours, hashing out the implications. “There was a feeling like ‘we could do anything,’ ” says Mike.

The original plan was to hole up at Sofaer’s family’s house in Palo Alto, put their heads down, and code. Instead, they took up an offer to work with Mike at Pivotal, an airy dot-com hive where they could gain insight from more-experienced programmers. Salzberg, Grippi, and Zhitomirskiy rented cheap rooms two blocks away, while Sofaer moved to the Mission. On the afternoon I visited, streams of Ruby code flowed down one screen in blue, orange, and red. On another was the rudimentary Diaspora* interface, with the Founding Fathers (Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin) commenting on one another’s status.

Salzberg and Zhitomirskiy joined me by the kitchen—near programmers playing Ping-Pong—and began describing their biggest hurdle: grokking the ordinary user.

The week before, they’d had a “come to Jesus” session with one of their advisers, the consultancy firm Luxr’s Janice Fraser, “a total badass chick and super-innovator,” in Salzberg’s description. They were too concerned with impressing fellow geeks, she argued—that Aspergian cadre of revolutionary coders who wanted the ultimate in security and flexibility. This group they playfully call “the beards.”

Instead, they needed to get into the heads of the larger world, the ones they referred to sometimes as “normal people” and sometimes as “the girls.” Your ordinary user, in other words—trading party photos and article links. An international group whose privacy needs ranged wildly from “I don’t want my mother to see this” to “If the government sees this, I will be decapitated.” In other words, everyone.

To give Diaspora* the widest possible appeal, the team decided on a two-tiered release. First, on their promised release date of September 15, they would dump the raw code, a “pre-alpha” program full of bugs. The open-source project would begin, with beards pitching in to make it workable.

Then, later in the fall, they’d release Diaspora* for real. Unlike Facebook, which requires users to store profiles on its company’s servers, Diaspora* would be decentralized. Users could store their “seed” of data on a traditional web host, or in a cloud-based host, or at a trusted friend’s server, or on their own computer, much like e-mail. Anytime they wanted, they could transfer (or “beam”) their profile onto another server, or delete it entirely. No data could be “scraped” by outside parties; all data transfers would be encrypted.

Eben Moglen “sees way into the future,” says Salzberg of the professor’s Freedom Box. “We really like that conception, but there’s got to be a baby step.”

“Our baby step is we want to move people from websites that are not healthy to websites that are more healthy, because they’re transparent,” says Zhitomirskiy. “Even though a nontechnical person may not understand it, they’ll know there’s a community that has said, this is okay.

“Feel free to contribute!” adds Zhitomirskiy, as if speaking to the world.

“We heard everybody, and they want something that they can use,” adds Salzberg.

They know there are doubters, including programmers who find it unlikely that four inexperienced coders could pull off anything of this magnitude—whipping up a usable interface in one summer, then using it to magnetize a planet of users. One online manifesto called them “four fixie-hipster computer-science majors” and sneered, “Take a look at what these kids are selling for a moment—and yes, I said kids, because that’s what they are, kids. There isn’t even a product here, just a promise.”

But Moglen, at least, is onboard, despite the lack of a Freedom Box. “No society has been so entirely penetrated by informers,” he warns me by phone from India, where he is delivering the next in his series of speeches. “Facebook knows all your behaviors, Google knows your thoughts. Communist China was never able to use surveillance this well.”

The Diaspora* experiment may be as much a psychological wedge as a technological one, helping break through the denial of ordinary users. “People tell themselves, ‘I’m not important,’ ” says Moglen. “And ‘I’m not doing anything wrong, so why should I care?’ And ‘Well, at least no human being is reading this e-mail.’ ” The potential for computers to predict, even shape, our behavior, by aggregating “the data dandruff of life” is beyond our comprehension, he argues—we simply can’t handle numbers that big. “We need to learn to see privacy as more than ‘the one secret I don’t want anyone to know.’ ”

But in Moglen’s view, a change is on its way. “The people who have short-term needs for more money and more power are an ancien régime on the verge of being swept away,” he predicts from Bangalore. “And the thing that sweeps them away is not utopian violence, but the technological sophistication of the kind of youngsters you are speaking of.”

On Saturday, Salzberg and I hike down to Noisebridge, the hacker community. It’s a large loft full of half-made robots and racks of transistors. There’s a framed poster for the movie Hackers and a handmade sign reading “Fucking Butterflies: How Do They Work?”

We sit on a beat-up sofa to discuss the challenges of coding what he calls “two separate but equal incantations, basically.” Salzberg ticks off the team’s personality styles, which show up in sharper contrast as they stumble, in pairs, toward the goalposts. “Me and Ilya are the pie-in-the-sky revolutionaries. Dan and Rafi are the pragmatic conservatives. Dan sees it as a product, a thing. Design is me and Dan. Encryption is Ilya and Rafi.” When the pairings work well, it’s wonderful, he says—you want your differences to strengthen your creation. But those tensions can also pull you apart.

Later, when I visit Zhitomirskiy’s room in their boardinghouse, I see a pile of books, including Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson and Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities. On his computer monitor hangs a small yellow sticky, a positive affirmation reading, “This is exactly what I want to be doing. Proactively working on creating privacy-respecting ecosystem for innovation.”

“Max thinks it will make money,” argues Sofaer as we talk about the future of their project. The team has spoken to venture capitalists and others who want in on the project, although so far, they have remained independent.

“On Diaspora* itself, there’s no money to be made,” Zhitomirskiy insists. “But an open platform is good for anybody.” He’s perched on his windowsill, legs pulled up. “I don’t think we want to do ads. Ads are just like … meh. But that’s way down the line, and we’re not thinking about that.”

“We are making money, in that we’re making capital just from working on the project,” suggests Sofaer. Even if they fail to take down Facebook, Diaspora* would be an impressive line on a résumé.

“There’s something deeper than making money off stuff,” says Zhitomirskiy, gazing out at the air shaft. “Being a part of creating stuff for the universe is awesome.”

A month later, Diaspora* dumped its code—the “pre-alpha” release—which was now ready for open-source development.

Immediately, the web came alive. Some posters, including experienced developers, raged about security gaps (and others called the T-shirt logo “too spermy”), while defenders urged everyone to patch it, pitch in, fix it.

On his cell phone from San Francisco, Salzberg was nearly hyperventilating. “To be honest, the four of us are overwhelmed,” he told me, as he scurried down the street. “The website we’re using, GitHub, in less than 24 hours, we became the eleventh most-followed project. It’s surreal.” In 24 hours, their code was translated into approximately seven languages.

But a day later, Salzberg sounded calmer. It was after-hours, and all the older “Pivots” had left the office—the Diaspora* crew had the place to themselves. They just needed to take in the criticism, to stay positive, Salzberg explained. He felt confident that they were headed toward their ultimate goal. “I want to trick 20-year-old girls into using free software,” he said, and while maybe this wasn’t the best way of putting it, I knew what he meant: He wanted to make something that was so cool to use, it didn’t feel like something radical.

That was the kind of change the world needed, he argued—seemingly small changes with huge repercussions. “I like the way Ilya described it to me,” he said. “ ‘We want to move tectonic plates, not kick a rock across the universe.’ ”