Trouble right here in Twitter City

fftYesterday’s rollback of Twitter @replies and subsequent shift to technical explanations has predictably riled the Statusphere. But beneath the frustration and pushback is the suspicion that neither celebrity spamming nor scaling problems are at the root of the changes. Regardless of the outcome, Twitter is risking more than might seem apparent based on user and third party developer complaints.

As Twitter becomes more fundamental to the realtime revolution, the company is being forced to act like the common carrier utility it has inherited. Even though Twitter has lobotomized many of its realtime features, other services such as FriendFeed have picked up the ball and kept Twitter realtime operational for all intents and purposes. Twitter’s gating of the firehouse (whether due to instability or business concerns) has only served to encourage FriendFeed users to route around latency by using the native realtime swarms that are now commonplace with the redesign.

The @reply changes also underline the more powerful FriendFeed analogs such as Like that, combined with the bridging tools to Twitter, produce threaded conversations complete with pointers back to the source with a single click. This kind of overloaded metadata outside the 140 character window illustrates the direction Twitter is having trouble moving to even as it tweaks its static interface by abandoning user options. The underlying risk: training users to exploit other tools during “outages” that are being marketed over Twitter in the realtime they can’t manage.

Google’s search announcements suggest a go-slow approach to realtime that may offer Twitter some breathing room. But the intersection between Google’s support for microformats and the open stack work on activity streams may produce rapid consolidation around a more unified micromessage stream ripe for Track and filtering. From the outsider’s (everybody) perspective, what Twitter does or does not do with @reply visibility will be meaningless except as a form of feature limiting inside the Twitter cloud.

It’s possible Twitter is trying to control cross-cloud communications by tying @replies to bi-directional following in a Facebook-like blockade that can then be extended to outside services under cover of celebrity spam. But if that were at the core of this, the pressure to deliver Track would only increase as a way of filtering the resultant Scoble-like flow. And anyone who tired of waiting would just use FriendFeed as a realtime client like we already are, and simply not care one whit about Twitter’s shifting sands. It’s no accident that FriendFeed threads quickly wound through the issue while the hashtag workaround on Twitter made a lot of noise but produced only a single response from Evan Williams and the technical excuse of the next morning.

Indeed, as I write Twitter is down for maintenance, and for those of us who rely on the existence of the realtime network, it makes perfect sense to use FriendFeed links as a way to minimize disruptions by individual nodes. As we build out a failover version of the Statusphere, those services who use aggregation to maintain connections during outages of whatever motive or duration will prosper. That’s what Twitter should recognize as its greatest challenge: the use of the service to amplify its shortcomings.