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Something just happened and I think it may be important. While not everything has been put in place, it appears the necessary ingredients for a conversational platform – correction, open conversational platform – have been added to the mix. What Dave Winer calls the two-party system may be emerging at just the right time to gather tangible momentum.

What Winer brought to the formalization of an open standard around RSS is being forged this time in the MicroBlogging or public IM space by a new cast of characters and a push protocol called XMPP. In the early days of RSS, Winer worked with and then carried on after Netscape dropped out, essentially freezing in place those aspects of both systems that he felt were fundamental.

Today it is Twitter’s functionality that is being aggressively cloned and perhaps frozen with Evan Prodromou’s Identi.ca. Though the platform started shakily with no directory to aid formation of a user’s follow cloud (or social graph), Twitter’s struggles masked the insurgent’s progress. When Twitter’s Evan Williams announced the Summize acquisition in a conversation with Mike Arrington at Tim O’Reilly’s private FooCamp, the outlines of what Twitter would do to monetize the service began to emerge.

Subsequent announcements of a deal with ping server startup Gnip and continued messaging that XMPP would remain quarantined from the larger Twitter development community made it increasingly obvious that Twitter was moving quickly to consolidate ownership of its dominant cloud of users around the Track capability. A kind of registered search where filtered keywords aid in discovering conversations across the public network, Track depends on effective real-time response to enable back and forth “conversations” from point to point and one to many.

Twitter’s @Reply functionality allowed anyone to talk directly to users, but the default setting only let these messages through when the sender was being “followed” by the receiver. When Track was working, I could (and did) route around that limitation by evangelizing the dropping of the @sign. People who tracked my username as I did could get through to me at any time with or without the @sign. Although this strategy irritated many users, it also promoted the way I consumed these track messages, via an XMPP stream over the open source Jabber instant messaging transport supported by Google Talk/Chat among others.

Ironically, Identi.ca has not gotten around yet to supporting the Twitter @reply functionality. When Loic Le Meur made a beta version of his Twhirl desktop client available with Identi.ca support today, it took advantage of the service’s XMPP support, which unlike Twitter’s sweetheart deals with Summize, FriendFeed, and 2 others, is open and available to all comers. Le Meur had invested in an XMPP developer many weeks before when Track and IM were still running, and even with Gnip’s deal still had no way of leveraging the investment.

I was having a little trouble hooking it up (largely because I’d earlier enabled XMPP through Jabber when Identi.ca was launched and had forotten it.) But once I logged in to Twhirl and confessed my problem, Twhirl’s creator Marco Kaiser pinged me and set me straight. Not knowing whether Identi.ca supported the @reply function but knowing there was no track available, I used the @sign and in short order was in touch with Prodromou, who was pinging Kaiser with congratulations on rolling out the Twhirl client.

With clients not only for Twitter, Summize, and FriendFeed but now Identi.ca, Twhirl suddenly becomes a hub for managing the uber service that now has been enabled. Of all the nodes, only Identi.ca actually produces the real-time envelope that, in this case, let me quickly wire up the service, and perhaps soon will let me build out a cloud of users with like-minded needs and concerns. Messages entered into Twitter were taking several minutes to arrive in FriendFeed, by contrast.

Twhirl currently does not interleave streams from Twitter and FriendFeed, though that would be a useful service if it constrained new update from FriendFeed to just new comments with perhaps a TinyUrl link to the originating message. And Twhirl’s display of FriendFeed alone has the habit of bouncing back to the top of the screen on a new comment, together with the somewhat awkward UI for more than several comments being hidden behind a plus sign and an internal scroll bar.

But even more troubling is the lack of Track. Summize searches are available by clicking on a different view in the Twitter window, but there is no comparable access to FriendFeed’s search capability, which also suffers in its native Web client from a less than efficient rollup of conversations containing keywords into 3 or 4 of the initial comments, a link to the bulk in the middle, and then the last 2 or 3 that have come in.

Twitter’s Track service has been hacked around by Dustin Sallings and his Twitterspy service, which has been using a look the other way feed from Summize and therefore Twitter. Sallings has had to be careful not to ping the server too often for fear of overtaxing Summize or the Jabber.org servers, and although he’s enabled the ability to enter posts into the Gchat window, attempts to intermingle follow updates return a 403: Forbidden error.

But significantly, Identi.ca is based on an open source architecture, and the XMPP firehose is fair game for anybody. It wouldn’t take long to enable IdentiSpy without any of the restrictions, and I’ve suggested the possibility of Twhirl harvesting the stream and indexing it or perhaps carrying IdentiSpy or an equivalent.

What’s sure to happen is the rapid evolution of this platform. What’s being tested here is the fundamental relationship between users and services. Although Twitter seemed to make rapid steps toward transparency once stability began to return, the recent deals have seemed to increasingly compartmentalize the service into pieces, with the more monetizable Track IM piece gated by forcing it through the API and licensing the full XMPP stream to favored partners.

It’s understandable that the company needs to protect itself from interlopers, but in an odd way the messaging is similar to the record cartel’s branding of users rather than organized pirates as criminals. In both cases, providing access to the most committed fans would cement the relationship, where Twitter’s painful drip by drip parsing of the real-time magic makes it all the more dramatic when an open service enables conversations while the incumbent sits there like a hall monitor.

Twhirl’s aggregation of these services offers the promise of a suite approach that marries Twitter’s invention with FriendFeed’s conversational extensions, Track’s discoverability, and Identi.ca’s openness. As someone just IDed me:

micah Remapping cloud–wow, @stevegillmor. I’ve been enjoying the view here (but it may take an intervention to get me off of twitterspy)

Just as I fought the @sign to make the point that something bigger was going on, so too am I feeling compelled to refrain from posting to Twitter while I use Twhirl and FriendFeed to keep in touch with the conversation and map it over to the open one. To be sure, Twitter retains lots of scale and increasing stability, but the possibilities of an open Track seem hard to underestimate.

On his way to OSCON this evening, my new friend Evan Prodromou messaged me:

@stevegillmor let me know what it’ll take to switch you over.

Not much.

  • http://www.scripting.com/stories/2008/07/18/twitterConnectsToGnip.html Dave Winer

    Thanks for the excellent writeup. The two Evans are making something interesting happen. And despite what some say I think you’ll be surprised, perhaps pleasantly, that RSS will play a role in glueing the systems together.

  • PXLated

    Keep us posted Steve, very interested in the (your) progress/transition.

  • http://blog.stealthmode.com francine hardaway

    Just tell me where to go to meet my friends. These details, they confound me:-)

  • http://blog.echovar.com/?p=462 echovar » Blog Archive » Twitter’s Stunted Growth: An Inference from Muybridge’s Photos

    […] Kleenex) with a real-time XMPP flow is a genuine moving picture. It’s hardly surprising that looking at a series of still pictures, the users of Twitter deduce real-time flow of messages and a method of tracking one-to-one and one-to-many […]

  • Slimy

    This isn’t IT related. Go write for TC.

  • alex

    Steve: Interesting, but how will this impact the Enterprise? I’m sure it will but I don’t see it just yet. Please help me understand.

  • http://www.quick-links.net Sean Kelly

    This reminds me of the quote, “The Lunatics Have Taken Over the Asylum”.

    Twitters success is one of brand mindshare and technical solutions to its’ perceived problems go nowhere to capture that ground. Look to the Facebook/Myspace clones to appreciate how this is not going to happen.

  • Ben

    Enough with twitter @ TechCrunch IT already.
    Do you guys want us to take you seriously or not?

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  • http://www.drumsnwhistles.com/ Karoli

    I don’t know how you can say it’s not IT related. Isn’t IT all about networks? Wouldn’t enterprise benefit from a real-time information stream with the ability to extract and track key terms?

    Seems to me that IT professionals would be the very audience for this information. Redundancy, ways to move — no, PUSH — information to respective interested parties would be right up enterprise’s alley.

  • Steve Gillmor


    If you look at micro blogging as the “horse race” Twitter has a comfortable lead. The conversational track functionality, however, depends on a smaller number of users in what can be called a discoverable cloud. Here, Twirl’s role as an aggregator/reader of not just Twitter but FriendFeed and Summize’s clouds allows Track-centric users to maintain their existing relationships while cherry picking the follow social graph to transfer the real-time value of the combined cloud. In effect, Twhirl becomes a validator of Identi.ca at a vulnerable moment for Twitter. I find it more than coincidental the similarity to the rise of RSS at the dawn of Web services, which arguably has had a powerful resonance in the still continuing roiling of enterprise architecture.

  • http://rasterweb.net/raster/ Pete Prodoehl

    “How will this impact the Enterprise” Well, with the development of open services like identi.ca (based on the open source Laconica) and clients that can support it (like Twhirl) it opens up the doorway for companies to build their own versions of Twitter, or MicroBlogging sites, to use as they see fit. I think that’s an exciting prospect…

  • alex

    Thank you … I’m starting to get it (but only starting). We enterprise guys can be a little slow ….

  • http://blogs.opml.org/amyloo Amyloo

    “…while the incumbent sits there like a hall monitor.” I liked that part.

    On relevance to the enterprise, don’t you think there are a couple different things going on here? There’s the business intelligence piece (especially for consumer-facing companies), the value of which, as you mention, the Twitter guys are all too well aware of.

    Then there’s the employee and partner messaging aspect, which could be useful in different ways, whether it’s used to talk to the world, or in a more private way. I could see an intranet hack with something like tinyurls linking not just to websites but also to docs on a file server inside an enterprise.

  • Aronski

    If there has ever been a space race that the users have had an influence on, it’s been this one. Maybe the fact that it is about real time broadcast and communication that has fueled the speed of the responses (except, of course in Twitter’s case).

    I must also voice the thought to those who don’t feel that this emerging form of communication would not be valuable to IT; wouldn’t IT benefit from a system that broadcasts and responds in groups over stationary & mobile platforms in real time? Wouldn’t the feedback gathered and the time sensitive nature of business be helpful? If something was wrong with your product (or right), wouldn’t you like to use track to find out ASAP if people were talking about it so you could do something about it?

    Look beyond what people are eating…

  • http://www.drumsnwhistles.com/2008/08/23/intersections-twitter-track-and-cnn/ odd time signatures » Blog Archive » Intersections: Twitter, Track, and CNN

    […] And Mark, the way I found your critical remark? I track my name. So when you sent me a message without following me, I was able to discover it and have a real-time conversation with you about the whole thing because track worked. […]

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