July 11, 2008

Open and closed, Part II—Microblogging

Microblogging is one of those things that's hard to explain to the uninitiated, and doesn't really begin to make sense until you've used it for a while. It's like instant messaging, only public. It's like a bulletin board, only for short messages. It's a status update system. It's a very small blog. It's...well, it's hard to explain.

The granddaddy of the microblogs, of course, is Twitter. Twitter has been much in the news of late, not only for its random crashes and frequent unavailability, but also for its recent infusion of venture capital from the likes of Jeff Bezos. Twitter's popularity has spawned a multitude of competitors, all of whom have tried to differentiate themselves from Twitter by adding features.

Pownce, brought to you by Kevin Rose, the creator of Digg.com, offers file transfer and the ability to send messages to selected groups of people.Jaiku, from a team in Finland, added the ability to follow RSS feeds and introduced threaded replies. It showed great potential until Googlebought it and made it invitation-only, which effectively killed whatever momentum it acquired after tech journalist and podcaster Leo Laportemade a well-publicized switch from Twitter, bringing with him his audience. There's Friendfeed, which also has RSS aggregation ability plus commenting, and the quirky Plurk.

What all of these services have in common is that they are silosâclosed systems, vertically integrated and walled off from the outside world. Twitter has taken some criticism for its frequent outagesâwhich have become so common that the "fail whale" image it displays at such times <span>has its own Wikipedia entry</span>_(Wikipedia entry deleted as of 2008-07-15) but all of them are potentially subject to the same issues of reliability. Just last week, though, a new competitor went public that has the potential to be radically disruptive.

The new entrant is Identi.ca, a Canadian offering that is based on an open-source microblogging platform known as Laconica. I'm no programmer, but as I understand it, the idea behind Identi.ca is that individuals or companies can download and install the Laconica software on a server and run their own microblog, and all these microblogs can interact with each other and with Identi.ca. Suddenly, you're not in a silo, you're part of a distributed network of microblogs, and if one fails the others can go on undisturbed. This means, in theory at least, that the kind of scaling issues we've seen with Twitter won't be a factor. It also means that you can be on one service, and a friend can be on another, and you can still see their status updates and follow their posts.

Of course, right now Identi.ca is the main user of the software, but there is a list on the Laconica website of other servers running Laconica,and there is no reason to think there won't be more. The Laconica software is open-source, so anyone can maintain or develop it, and then donate those changes back to the community. It's essentially the same model used by the Linux community and the popular browser Firefox, and it has been shown to work well.

The only fly in the ointment, if there is one, is the numbers. Right now, Twitter is still where the majority of users are, but the "cool kids"âthe developers, programmers, and open-source advocates who can see the potential of a distributed microblogging networkâare already moving towards Identi.ca (here's one example). In the first 24 hours it was public, Identi.ca registered over 8000 new users and posted more than 19,000 status updates. Clearly, the early adopters are interested. What is needed now is for regular users to adopt it as well.

So, I'm doing my part. I'm moving to Identi.ca as my main status blog, and I'm asking my friends, family, and anyone who reads this to join me over there. At the very least, register an account there and get your preferred username while it's still relatively new and uncrowded. I'll still be posting my sutff at Twitter, Plurk, Jaiku, etc. through the miracle of Ping.fm, but I'll be hanging out at Identi.ca. It isn't feature-complete yetâthings like an SMS gateway and direct messaging are still to come. But it's evolving rapidly, and so far shows impressive stability. The main developer is responsive, and the community (the Identi.cans?) is ever so congenial.

Won't you join me?