Why can’t privacy and connectedness go hand-in-hand? That’s the question being raised by those behind the new Diaspora project, an ambitious undertaking to build an “anti-Facebook” – that is, a private, open source social network that puts you back in control of your personal data.

Envisioned by four NYU computer science students, the Diaspora project would replace today’s centralized social web (yes, they mean you, Facebook) with a decentralized one, while still offering something that’s convenient and easy for anyone to use.

According to the project’s homepage, the students, Daniel Grippi, Maxwell Salzberg, Raphael Sofaer, and Ilya Zhitomirskiy, “bonded over many late nights building a Makerbot,” (to you non-geeks, that’s a type of robot) and they “started discussing what a distributed social network would look like.”

The end result of those discussions was the idea for Diaspora. So they stopped talking about it and started building.

The project is now hosted on Kickstarter.com, a social fundraising platform that lets entrepreneurs and other creative types crowd-source funding by setting up a project goal, deadline and optional set of rewards for project backers.

In Diaspora’s case, they’re less than $2000 short of their $10,000 goal with under a month left to go until reaching their deadline. If the project receives the necessary level of funding by June 1st, it will be built and the code released as free software using the aGPL open-source software license.

What is a Decentralized Social Network?

So what is Diaspora anyway? Instead of being a singular portal like Facebook, Diaspora is a distributed network where separate computers connect to each other directly, without going through a central server of some sort.

Once set up, the network could aggregate your information – including your Facebook profile, if you wanted. It could also import things like tweets, RSS feeds, photos, etc., similar to how the social aggregator FriendFeed does. A planned plugin framework could extend these possibilities even further.

Your computer, called a “seed” in the Diaspora setup, could even integrate the connected services in new ways. For example, a photo uploaded to Flickr could automatically be turned into a Twitter post using the caption and link.

When you “friend” another user, you’re actually “friending” that seed, technically speaking. There’s not a centralized server managing those friend connections as there is with Facebook – it’s just two computers talking to each other. Friends can then share their information, content, media and anything else with each other, privately using GPG encryption.

Diaspora, the Turn-Key Solution

Because not everyone will be technically capable of (or interested in) setting up their computer to function as a “seed,” there are plans to offer a paid turn-key service too, similar to WordPress.com, the blogging platform. WordPress itself is software you can install and configure on your own server, if you’re inclined to do so, but if you’re less technically-savvy, you can opt to quickly start a blog via WordPress.com instead. Diaspora would function in a similar way.

If a lot this sounds reminiscent of Opera’s Unite project, the Web browser maker’s overly-hyped plan to “reinvent of the Web,” it should. In Opera Unite, users can share documents, photos, music, videos and run websites and chat rooms by directly linking two computers together.

However, in Unite’s setup, there are Opera-run proxy servers involved, which led to issues – especially when those servers went down. Diaspora wouldn’t have that problem.

Mainstream Success?

Still, the concepts behind Diaspora, while the sort of thing tech geeks will eat up, may be harder to grasp for the everyday Facebook user who is still trying to figure out how post a link or video to their Wall. Distributed, decentralized, open-source what?

If Diaspora is realized, it will be up to technology advocates to position the turn-key service in a way that will make it sound simple and appealing to precisely those sorts of mainstream users if it is to ever succeed. Taking shots at Facebook’s privacy issues may be a good course (Take back control with Diaspora!).

We would like to see Diaspora come to be, even if it never goes mainstream because it would finally offer privacy advocates a real alternative to the increasingly data-hungry Facebook.

Plus, after watching the video of students explaining their idea, saying “no” would be like turning away a Girl Scout cookie seller empty-handed. We just don’t have it in us.

For more information about the project and the potential for distributed social networking in general, check out the Q&A between Mozilla’s Luis Villa and the team here. We couldn’t do a longer interview with the team members ourselves because they’re busy with “finals and graduation,” we’re told.