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.

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