This week the Diaspora Project put its hand out to ask supporters for "$25 or whatever they can spare" to keep the project going. Raising money is not a particularly effective use of developer time. Instead of seeking funds from the userbase, the Diaspora folks should be knocking on Mozilla's door instead – and Mozilla ought to answer.

Last week, Mozilla issued its financial report for 2010. There's a huge lag in Mozilla's financial reports, so we don't have much visibility into how Mozilla is doing in 2011. But if we assume it's on-par with 2011, Mozilla is not cash-poor.

Mozilla Can Afford It

Diaspora, on the other hand, is out of Kickstarter cash – and not surprisingly, given that $200,000 is very little money to run a shop with four developers. Mozilla could easily afford to kick in five times that on an annual basis, and still be sitting pretty.

It's not unheard-of for Mozilla to donate to other non-profit open source projects. For example, they've donated tens of thousands of dollars to the GNOME Foundation for accessibility work. (Accessibility being features that benefit users that have physical limitations that make computers more difficult to use.)

Alignment

While Mozilla hasn't shelled out any seven-figure contributions that I'm aware of, it wouldn't be a bad idea for Mozilla to promote a social network that fits well with its goals for the open Web.

Mozilla's Manifesto calls for the Internet to remain "open and accessible," promotes open data formats, open source and says that "individuals must have the ability to shape their own experiences on the Internet."

Diaspora fits very well with the Mozilla Manifesto. Its distributed nature means that anyone can host a Diaspora pod. They can opt to connect to other Diaspora pods, or just host private pods with an exclusive user base. Users control their data, and will eventually have the ability to export data to another Diaspora instance.

It's also open source, and the project has gained a fairly impressive contributor base in the short time Diaspora has been in development.

Alternative to Closed Social Networks

On the other hand, the dominant existing social networks are not well-aligned with the Mozilla mission. For a really rich Internet, Mozilla needs to look beyond the browser.

Diaspora may never overtake Facebook, but at a minimum, it can at least provide a solid alternative to proprietary walled garden social networks. A strong showing for Diaspora would also nudge Facebook, Google, and others towards more user-friendly policies.

Avoid Distractions

As the Mozilla folks are aware, a quest for a business model can be a hefty distraction from the job of creating a compelling project. Consider, for example, the gear-grinding that went on with Mozilla Messaging.

Mozilla tried to split out Thunderbird as a separate self-sustaining project. Eventually, it folded Messaging back into the main foundation because it couldn't find a business model that would sustain it. Search works well (right now) for Firefox, but it just didn't fit with Thunderbird.

But Mozilla continues to fund Thunderbird because having an open mailer is important. I'd argue that having an open competitor to Facebook is every bit as important.

The Diaspora guys have their plates full managing the project. Funding from Mozilla would let them focus on that rather than trying to raise funds.

Guidance

Another reason, in fact a primary reason, that I think that Mozilla should invest in Diaspora? It's an opportunity for an established project to advise an upstart.

I'm impressed by the success of Diaspora so far, but that doesn't mean that the project hasn't made mistakes. The feedback I'm seeing is that they should have prioritized getting more users into Dispora before asking for more money. The founders told me they have about 500,000 people waiting to get in – that's a problem.

Mozilla could also help Diaspora scale as a project, and deal with issues that they're likely to run into with regards to security, translation and so on. The Moz folks have dealt with all this stuff before.

The Diaspora project got a lot of attention very quickly. That means that the pressure is on to perform, very quickly. Having Mozilla as an older sibling to help Diaspora along would be a very good thing. I'm not saying the Moz folks have never made mistakes, but they do tend to learn from them. Working closely with Mozilla would also give Diaspora additional credibility.

Problems

I'm glossing over a lot of details here. For example, I suspect that Diaspora would need to be an official non-profit before Mozilla could donate a significant sum of money to the project. The Diaspora folks should probably look to the Software Freedom Conservancy (SFC) or Software in the Public Interest (SPI) as an umbrella organization rather than trying to set up their own.

Diaspora isn't the only open source social network in town. However, it's one that's managed to capture public attention (and press) better than any of the others. It would be a shame if the opportunity is lost while the founders get bogged down in fund-raising.