Why Twitter is winning

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Twitter is winning and most of its competitors remain in denial. In spite of almost 5 months of unavailability of its most viral service, Twitter remains the platform of choice for most users. FriendFeed remains a hybrid of conversations and semi-realtime aggregator, capturing most of the energy of Google Reader as a citation engine but stubbornly refusing to allow its metadata to flow back into Twitter and other real time engines.

Facebook has freshened up its UI and allowed us to personalize the news stream to vaguely emulate Twitter. And Jaiku appears to have made the leap to App Engine and could resurface momentarily, only to remind us why Twitter won that one in the first place. Jaiku was always the erector set that could do anything, but who has the time to do anything these days? Better to do what we can do, and let the winners expand their offerings.

Supporters of the open source Laconica project and its flagship Identi.ca see the platform as a challenger to Twitter’s dominance, but the reality is that Twitter is winning that battle. Most thought leaders continue to broadcast on Twitter, and mainstream media outlets such as CNN reinforce that choice by publicizing Twitter users when they engage around the political debate. The marketing aspects of Twitter serve as a powerful factor in keeping the so-called A-List from migrating. The missing real time features are much less important than maintaining and/or accelerating personal brands. Most would rather wait until track and other two-way services are restored or introduced on the dominant platform.

Twitter is winning not because it has managed its success well but because its competitors have bungled the counterattack. No service has stepped up to offer even the semblance of an alternative to Twitter’s value proposition, that being a digital soapbox on which to debate the ideas, events, and emotions that course through the place formerly known as the blogosphere. In an oddly ironic way, FriendFeed and Identi.ca have siphoned off the most vocal critics of Twitter’s failures and kept them occupied long enough for Twitter to recover.

For their part, Identi.ca and FriendFeed proponents have gone from anger to despair to revolutionary fervor to silence as users offer muted reassurance while at the same time wandering “aimlessly” back to Mother Twitter. FriendFeed’s strategy of cultivating a new A-List has largely succeeded, but micro-blogging depends more on a personalized A-List then a generalized one. Ultimately, a unified inbox is more valuable than an elite one.

Identi.ca suffers from its inability to partition its forces into discrete entities that can survive downtime by others. The politics of open source contribution vie with the benign dictator leader role, where a natural and understandable inclination to incorporate as much of the feature set into the platform core conflicts with the need to maintain incentives for participation by a wider, more scalable pool of talent.

Unfortunately, understanding the need to limit one’s own power to aggregate even broader power is a skill that must emanate from the center, rather than be forced from the edges. The founding fathers somehow conspired to achieve a set of checks and balances that kept this elusive source of power alive across a broad coalition of conflicting egos, methodologies, philosophies, and agendas. Such a unifying higher purpose seems absent from the current situation.

Certainly Twitter has no such motivation for seeding the community. To the contrary, the company has violated the spirit of its users’ contract with the service by shutting down our ability to communicate in realtime with the people with whom we’ve established relationships in the Twitter cloud. We accepted the explanation that the service was withdrawn for technical reasons, but not the lack of one for what are clearly business reasons.

It’s easy to see why Twitter’s stance is problematic, but without a realistic alternative most people will just suck it up and wait. Identi.ca’s open source zeal has attracted a band of committed adventurers, but developing a credible alternative so far has lacked that unifying higher purpose that harnesses not just the open source model but one that Twitter and other commercial vendors themselves can endorse or at least accommodate.

I’m placing my bet on a three branches of government approach, where Twitter is one, Identi.ca/Laconica another, and the third is an aggregation layer of microblogging service output upon which track, bridging, and other interactive services are rendered. For now, I expect nothing from Twitter other than continued silence about track and IM services. If I’m wrong about that, all’s the better, as Twitter will then join the larger community based on whatever business model it presents for access to realtime data.

By separating the task of supplying track services over XMPP from the Laconica core, Identi.ca and other Laconica instances can use less onerous transports to push public streams to the third branch. This should also encourage more Laconica instances as well as other open and commercial micro-blogging platforms, thereby distributing the load across smaller clouds that can continue to use PHP as a rapid leveraging tool for fan out.

The same will hold true for the third branch, where services such as IdentiSpy, Gnip, Twhirl, and other larger players can leverage EC2, App Engine, and Mesh to compete and perhaps collaborate to push XMPP services to a broad range of clients and communities. Conceivably this could include Twitter, but
for now the goal is to achieve reliable uptime for open track and related realtime services regardless of the originating source.

Accordingly, tomorrow we will announce the date for the first BearHug Camp, at which I will further delineate the architecture of this three branch approach, including a new Laconica instance which will serve as a reference node, and a group of participating developers and users who are committed to a realistic alternative to Twitter’s current strategy.

BearHug Camp will be live streamed in its entirety by Leo Laporte over his TWiT-TV network. We’re using a scholarship/tuition plan to make sure we get a good cross-section of the community into the room. Scholarships will be awarded based on need, both on applicants’ part and ours to get the right mix in the room. I will exert whatever leverage I can to minimize vendor pitches and filibustering by any and all parties. Or we can just let Twitter win.

  • http://www.tareandshare.com Sheraz Mahmood

    Good Post! The only reason I haven’t totally moved to Identi.ca is the network effect of twitter. I am getting far more value out of twitter+twhirl with my current follows than I would suspect at Identi.ca.

  • http://middledigit.net Jonathan

    Yep – great post. But in the UK and other countries, I think the SMS issue needs to be resolved super quick as the magic is fading without the mobile integration both ways. Step in a UK operator FFS and gain that HUGE win by coming to an agreement with Twitter and generating lots of love from your core early adopter (increasingly mainstream) community.

  • http://friendfeed.com/moskowitz moskowitz

    Mr. Gillmor:

    Excellent analysis.

    Your pointers to & around indenti.ca have gone un- or even under-appreciated; but, spot on.

    Nice work … Deserved props for your willingness to educate & move technology forward

    scott moskowitz

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

    Had Laconica been viable 101 days ago when Twitter turned track off, it would have been a more competitive option. Now that Twitter is the mainstream microblog drug of choice, it will take a monumental event to force anyone to consider a different option. Not that it couldn’t happen, it could. I hope it does. They feel free to keep track under lock and key, along with anything posted there that goes back farther than 200 posts because they have no incentive to release it.

    At the same time, it’s difficult for me to imagine abandoning Twitter altogether when it has so many sources of information and conversation. It’s not about maintaining my brand as much as it is maintaining my social graph, which I should be able to do no matter what cloud I adopt as my principal residence. I would also appreciate a decent client that simply allowed me to one-click reply to whatever service messaged me.

    My biggest concern is that these technologies are powered by PHP, which is universally hated by IT departments, it seems. Will corporate powers-that-be ever get past that barrier? My guess is that it will be a long time coming.

  • http://thesethingsmattertome.com Andy

    Interesting thoughts!
    One thing: I work in an IT department, and PHP is most definitely not hated. There are as many different IT subcultures as there are technologies, so I’m certain there are some IT departments that hate it, but not mine :D
    Also, regarding IT departments in general: So many of parties mentioned in this post are *hosted* so what we think about the software matters much less than what we think about the *data standards.*
    An exciting thing about Identica is that it suggests a federated future, where some people are hosted, some people are running their own servers, all with disparate technologies, all talking to each other.
    I think this pattern has happened before, and will happen in the future: a simple, hosted, closed product proves the concept (Blogger, Muxtape), and then an open, occasionally more complex option comes in and gets understood and repurposed and grows wildly. (WordPress, Opentape).

  • http://psiqueii.blogspot.com laura

    to me, someone just seems utterly in love with twitter. forgiving of the shortcomings, hopeful of a shared future, unwilling to take a closer look at alternatives that could make for a much happier marriage of user and application in the long run..

  • http://whyfacebook.com Mari Smith

    Steve, I thoroughly enjoyed your thoughtful analysis of why Twitter continues to come out tops. I posted your blog to Facebook to share with my peeps.

    I’m a raving fan of Twitter – despite the challenges and hiccups they’ve had along the way, it’s still the best platform to deepen relationships, keep up on the latest news, attract new clients, conduct real time research, deploy surveys and much more. I’ve tested out some of Twitters “cousins” like Plurk & Identi.ca and just prefer Twitter – it’s simply where I find most energy… and results!


  • http://thomashawk.com Thomas Hawk

    I’m probably a FriendFeed zealot at this point. Twitter’s pretty much dead to me at this point — mostly due to the inability to aggregate serious conversations and the lack of visual representation — two things FriendFeed does remarkably well. It will be interesting to look at the two services two years from now.

  • http://openmode.ca malcolmbastien

    A foreseeable path for Laconica to take, if not to be general populations’ micro-blogging platform of choice could easily be as the platform of choice for corporations to adopt as their corporate internal micro-blogging platform. If focus were concentrated on the corporate micro-blogging market, the company behind Laconica could grab a notable market share and grow Laconica in a profitable way.

  • http://www.pistachioconsulting.com Laura "Pistachio" Fitton

    Great analysis Steve. I agree that some kind of interoperability and integration of microsharing (microblogging) platforms is the way this eventually goes. Whether that happens via interoperability standards (like email) or aggregators (like IM) remains to be seen. Twhirl’s aggregation of Twitter, FriendFeed and Identi.ca seems promising.

    @ThomasHawk I think the demographic that is up to it will stay on applications like FriendFeed, but I just don’t see them ever becoming mainstream. Like email, some use more sophisticated services and some prefer the simpler ones, but ultimately we all talk to one another.

    The genie is out of the bottle. Microsharing’s not going away, and I don’t think Twitter is either. The question is where do we go from here?

  • http://www.pistachioconsulting.com Laura "Pistachio" Fitton

    PS – When microsharing *inside* of businesses take hold, especially where it eventually integrates into complex enterprise software like ERP and other tracking systems, then we might see market pressure for standards, open APIs and interoperability. Ideally such internal systems should act as interstitial communications pathways between any number of applications. The forerunner of this is services like Dopplr, Xpensr, RememberTheMilk and many others that accept and issue “command line” tweets that update to and from the application. If this standard can be built so that it’s already compatible with the public-facing services, things might get interesting…

  • http://www.hostdisciple.com Ross


    Sorry to disagree with your well thought out article but the reason Twitter is winning is one word: momentum. When you have the user base and everyone is already communicating via your platform people aren’t going to switch.

    No one has given the Twitter use base a good reason to switch or offered any revolutionary features to beat out twitter at its own game.

    There is a reason ebay, paypal, etc. will be number one for quite a while and it isn’t because they are the best.

  • http://www.iplant.eu christopher

    Great post

    • http://astore.amazon.com/pi03-20 WII System Bundle

      Understanding the need to limit one’s own power to aggregate even broader power is a skill that must emanate from the center.

  • http://saunderslog.com Alec Saunders

    Twitter wins in my book. Tools like Tweetdeck, Tweetbeep, etc are all that I need to keep track of the conversations I’m monitoring and Twitter is where the action is.

  • johnny

    i will never use twitter, i think its gay

  • http://www.pjbrunet.com/ PJ Brunet

    It seems to me, most Twitter users have a website, they have an interest in the Internet. Which is why Twitter is so popular with seo/marketing people.

    However, the “tinyurl” thing is silly, with no standard way to share a link, which is a big part of why people use Twitter. Twitter needs to find a better way to exchange links, not using Tinyurl.

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


    If Twitter fails again the way it did in late May, I can certainly see people moving. As I said above, had a service been viable back then, it would have attracted many who were fed up with the instability.

    Timing worked that time, though some of us are still more than annoyed about track still being gone, and I am becoming more and more annoyed about the absence of any of my posts on the site in excess of 200.

  • http://sankt-georg.info/ Markus Merz

    I am all the time wondering why all the analysis seems to ignore that Twitter – despite all the momentum at present – is a ‘single point of failure’. Laconica offers a free OpenSource solution which is running a) stand alone or b) running in a m:n interconnected network of Laconica servers.

  • http://blurringborders.com/2008/09/02/is-google-chrome-good-for-freedom/ Is Google Chrome Good for Freedom? « Blurring Borders

    […] Luckily a group of developers and activists are pushing back against this dependency on third-party lock-in. Blogging at autonomo.us these smart folks are raising the red flag and in the case of Identi.ca, creating more open services to compete with proprietary leaders. Evan Prodromou is the creator of identi.ca, a micro-blogging service which embraces computing freedom to an extent Twitter does not. Unfortunately, the network effects in play make Identi.ca a difficult success story. […]

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

    @Thomas Hawk. I don’t like conversation, necessarily. I want to find out things quickly. I like Twitter because of the network, and Identi.ca because it’s a smaller, more geeky or political conversation where I am situated in the graph. Friendfeed is all over the map and I don’t have time for it.

  • Basil



    This is an excellent article I would have been thrilled to see in my TechCrunch feed, but it’s not about enterprise IT. Twitter (and microblogging in general) are still firmly web 2.0 technologies, and are only beginning to be slowly embraced by the world outside the silicon valley elite.

    On the other hand, there have been a rash of interesting things happening in the enterprise IT world this last week, many of which I have yet to see you write about. Oracle, IBM, Microsoft, VMWare, and HP have all had stuff happen to them recently that have been firmly ignored by your blog. Why call it a blog about enterprise IT if most of the content is going to be about web 2.0 and microblogging?


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


    If Twitter were purposed as a service to serve email or sales data in real time to a company would it be IT-related?

    If you shift your thinking of Twitter from “just a microblog” to “a service that moves data in real time”, it becomes completely IT-related. Just sayin’.

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

    shouldn’t have used email as the analogy. Think of it in terms of real-time sales data, industry news, employee communications instead. All archived and accessible.

  • Basil

    @Karoli maybe one day it will be considered enterprise IT- right now though, it’s a fancy toy for bloggers and some of the less technophobic people in press and politics.

    I work in enterprise IT, and of all the interesting stuff that’s happened this last week, none of it has been written about.

  • http://blackjapanman.com/ R.O.

    Twitter was a good idea, but both Facebook and Myspace have Twitter capabilities. Twitter doesn’t have pictures, comments, or a way to organize your followers.

    Also why are we still talking about social media when Google is web. 4.0? I can find anything and anyone with Google. I can teach myself anything too. Twitter is just a bunch of people talking. It is a fad but at least it is better than Facebook.

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