Sitting along Yankee Stadium’s third base line during New York University’s rainy graduation two years ago, Max Salzberg couldn’t focus. The phone in his pocket wouldn’t stop buzzing. With each notification, the NYU senior wiped water off the screen to read an e-mail saying yet another person had given money to Diaspora, the not-yet-even-a-startup he and three college buddies had hatched the month before. Buzz. Another donation. Another buzz. Over the course of the ceremony, Salzberg and his co-founders raised more than $10,000. Over the course of the day, $40,000 more.
A few weeks earlier, Salzberg and three friends from the computer science club—Daniel Grippi, Raphael Sofaer, and Ilya Zhitomirskiy—had posted a rambling three-minute video on the crowdfunding site Kickstarter. They wanted to raise $10,000 to create a new kind of social network, one that lets people, not companies, own their personal data. They were young. They thought it would take the summer.