The Bearhug

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Dave Winer used the bearhug to wrap his arms around Netscape’s version of RSS and not let go until a merged RSS was born. With Twitter’s announcement of “a minor change to the API that should have a major impact on the Twitter community” the time may be here to bearhug Twitter and unify the microblogging architecture.

The tweak “allows API clients to specify which status a status to be posted is in reply to, rather than our system assuming that it’s in reply to the last message posted by the user specified by ‘@username’.” In fact, forget about the @username nomenclature, which has caused no end of confusion and market fragmentation, and which is completely obviated by use of the Track mechanism. Of course, Twitter killed Track allegedly over scalability issues, but has kept it dead for business reasons.

But the API change makes it possible for clients to directly address each micro-object in the Twitter universe directly. That opens the door for other services to address posts from Twitter and vice-versa, which means that applications can now mix and match the parts of services they like rather than be tethered to one cloud of messages. Cue the bearhug, which appeared this afternoon in a message from Identi.ca creator Evan Prodromou: “@zach just implemented the in_reply_to_id parameter for our Twitter-like API. Way to go!”

On the Gillmor Gang today, I held Prodromou’s feet to the fire over some discussion apparently underway to boost Identi.ca’s 140 character limit. I argued that the value of such a change would be trivial compared to the lost ability to maintain the bearhug, as well as fragmenting the micro-objects that result from encouraging a different length from the market “standard” Twitter adopted from SMS requirements. The network effects of such a coalition radically increase the virality and marginalization of switching costs between networks, good for those seeking to catch up and a business challenge for incumbents.

Prodromou’s bearhug suggests that Identi.ca and federated Laconica servers will soon be able to talk to each other at the atomic item level, allowing a much deeper level of workflow for information objects. Standing as we are at the intersection of email, IM, (micro)blogging, and aggregation, it now becomes possible to orchestrate the different requirements of authoring, messaging, editing, filtering, and transacting in a unified communications system. This will bring all segments of the technology community into an increasingly larger bearhug, commonly known as open standards.

With the Internet OS, Office, media, and government all at intersecting crossroads, the bearhug seems difficult to defend against and extremely difficult to rationalize obstruction with users. Twitter has opened the door to the bearhug, and at this early stage it seems hard to see how they can disrupt the consequences of such an intelligent and ecumenical move. And let’s remember that Twitter is a David next to Googliath, and can use the bearhug just as effectively as Google has done with Facebook and MySpace with their support of OpenID and OAuth.

But Twitter is living on borrowed time with its XMPP blockade. The flowering of micro-objects opens the door to applications that leverage swarming around events and the growing availability of iPhone-class mobile devices. The success of App Store stars such as Evernote suggests that adding micro-object support will accelerate usage of the XMPP backbone. Latency in that environment will be an instant deal-breaker, opening the door for better-financed competitors to subsidize real time services to capture audience.

Perhaps the API move suggests Twitter is close to restoring Track and IM, whether alone or in concert with partners. The bearhug works in both directions, putting pressure on Identi.ca and other services such as FriendFeed to scale up and work with hub applications such as Twhirl to compete with whatever services Twitter tries to monetize. FriendFeed can use the micro-object standard to solve its problems with orphan comments, and there are opportunities for URL-shorteners, attention farms, and payload engines to build consensus as well.

Dave Winer and I are hoping to finalize plans for a MicroBlogging Camp in September, hopefully by the end of the weekend. Already there is talk of contention over the so-called Open Microblogging brand with competing .com and .org camps. And there’s always the chance that Twitter will pull back from making micro-objects accessible on the network. That’s why we’re applying our own bearhug here, by inviting all the players in the open and making it as hard as possible for anyone to say no.

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