Twitter — or, rather, the idea of a pervasive, public short messaging network — could be too important to be left under one entity’s control. The people behind the OpenMicroBlogging (OMB) movement say it’s time for the 140-character, publicly-subscribable format pioneered by Twitter to become an open standard, in part because, as last week’s attack showed, Twitter is as vulnerable as it is vital.
Farhad Manjoo (excerpts):
“Dave Winer, the pioneering programmer and blogger who runs Scripting.com, has been arguing for months that Twitter is untenable in its current form. Winer likes Twitter—or, at least, he likes the idea of Twitter. Short status updates could well succeed e-mail as the dominant mode of wired communication. But having one company manage the entire enterprise is technically fragile, he argues. Twitter went down last week due to a distributed denial-of-service attack aimed at a single Twitter user—millions of zombie computers had been directed to cripple the user’s social-networking pages (apparently as part of ongoing cyberwarfare between Russian and Georgian hackers). The rest of us were collateral damage—Twitter went down for you because of a beef between people on the other side of the world. Does this make sense? Winer doesn’t think so. If Twitter worked more like e-mail or the Web—a system managed by different entities that were connected by common Web protocols—a hit like last week’s wouldn’t be crippling. A denial-of-service attack would have brought down some people’s status updates, but Twitter would still work for most of the world.
Twitter, which is fully centralized, would be easy for a government to control,” Winer writes.
Winer, one of the creators of RSS, proposes using Web syndication as a replacement for Twitter. His idea, called RSS Cloud, is technically complex, but it boils down to this: When you send out an update, it’ll go to a set of servers in the Web cloud. The servers will keep track of your subscribers and alert them that you’ve updated. The key difference between this system and Twitter is decentralization—not everyone’s updates are kept by the same company or on the same servers. The system would work much like RSS does now: You can subscribe to lots of different blogs or podcasts, but those feeds are actually hosted all over the Web; some of them may go offline from time to time, but the whole thing won’t collapse all at once.
Several different groups are working on technologies that complement Winer’s vision.
In an insightful blog post, Anil Dash recently described these technologies as creating what he calls the “Pushbutton Web“.
Pushbutton technologies—including PubSubHubbub (seriously, that’s its real name), an open protocol developed by programmers at Google—let sites notify you whenever they’ve been updated.
Twitter hasn’t embraced these open protocols; its business interests lie in keeping everyone under the same roof. But as technologies like PubSubHubbub proliferate around the Web, with companies like Google, Facebook, and others embracing them, real-time Web updates will become the norm. It won’t be hard to build competitors to Twitter—systems that do as much as it does but whose decentralized design ensures that they’re not a single point of failure. Winer envisions these systems coming up alongside Twitter—when you post a status update, it could get sent to both Twitter and whatever decentralized, next-gen Twitter gets created. If these new systems take off, Twitter would be just one of many status-updating hubs—and if it went down, there’d be other servers to take its place.”
Here are the details, from Wired, about the Open Microblogging alternative:
“The OpenMicroBlogging standard already exists — it’s just that Twitter’s not playing along, possibly because it could lose market share if the open standard succeeds before it manages to monetize its service. One platform that adheres to the Open MicroBlogging (OMB) standard is Laconi.ca, an open-source Twitter-style network launched by Status.net on July 2 of last year (others include OpenMicroBlogger and Google’s Jaiku).
Laconi.ca, which seems to have gained more traction than the other two OMB platforms, forms the backbone of Identi.ca — an open-source Twitter clone with features Twitter lacks (image uploading, trackbacks, native video playback, OpenID) that lets you post updates to its own network as well as Twitter and Facebook. Status.net will soon add the ability to follow Twitter and Facebook feeds using the corresponding APIs, so users will soon be able to make Identi.ca their default short messaging communications hub — even if those services won’t use the open standard.
“I think that if Twitter decided to open and be part of an open protocol, that would be a very helpful thing for us,” said Status.net CEO Evan Prodromou. “And I think it would be really good for the web, too.”
Identi.ca provides the “open Twitter” experience for the regular user. But if you want to take your micro-blogging independence to the next level, port your Identi.ca account into free, open-source Laconi.ca software running on your own server.”
Here’s how Robert Scobleizer previously criticized the many shortcomings of the Twitter platform as well as its corporate egotism:
“This is a company that is building a channel for celebrities, bots, spammers, and a few of other types who like to tell each other short sweet nothings but really wants to be a platform for the world’s people, APIs, devices, etc to talk with each other.
I want that world too, but Twitter has made it so I — and increasingly the developers I interview who are building stuff on top of Twitter — don’t trust Twitter. Why? Because of several reasons:
1. I can’t get to my old Tweets. Seriously. They are, I’m sure, on a server somewhere in San Francisco, but I can’t get to them. Twitter search only shows the last few weeks and I’ve asked developers if they can get them but they can only get to the last few thousand Tweets. I’ve been through this before. The first two years of my blog are gone. Someone turned off a server and I was stupid enough not to back up those items first. Oh well.
2. Follower numbers are about as inaccurate as Google’s numbers are (we all know that when Google says there are 685,000 mentions of Robert Scoble you know that’s a total made up number, right?) Follower numbers are just as made up. Twitter artificially adds followers to people it deems important by putting them on the Suggested User List. And last week I learned that there are tons of followers who just follow you to get you to follow back (about 7% in my case). These are mostly fake followers cause they only cared about bumping up their follower numbers, not in listening to anything you had to say (which is provable because if they had listened to me over the years they would have joined FriendFeed cause I’ve talked about that so much that most people think that’s all I’ve talked about lately, which also proves they never watch my videos. Anyway, I digress, only 46,000 out of my now 93,500 followers have come over to FriendFeed, which demonstrates that I have a lot of followers who won’t do anything I ask them to). It’s worse than that, though. Twitter regularly cleans out spammers and such. Last time they did that they restated my follower count as 2,000 lower.
3. Twitter rarely discusses any changes or problems with its APIs with its developers. This is well documented, but doesn’t seem to change much. Developers tell me they are playing footsie with Twitter, trying to build stuff and also get to be friendly with them so that they are picked from the crop instead of their competitors. Think what would happen if Twitter bought or picked, say, TweetDeck. Would Seesmic have the market power to continue as a Twitter developer?
4. Twitter “picks” — at its whim — which companies will get displayed on its home page. Right now I just saw Seesmic displayed there. That artificially gives Seesmic a huge amount of users developers tell me and there’s no way for a company to know when it’ll be picked, or what the rules are. Totally up to Twitter’s team, just like being included on the Suggested User List is. I’ve heard from many that if you beg to be put on either list, too, you won’t get put on and will be blacklisted. I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s a common enough belief among Twitter developers that the threat of that is probably enough. 5. Twitter has built a system that relies on a third party for functionality. Even now, if we use bit.ly links like Twitter recommends, there’s no guarantee that Twitter will keep those links working in the future if Bit.ly’s investors decide it can’t make money. Since money has NOT started flowing through the Twitter system yet we’re all wondering just how Bit.ly will make money. And that’s before we consider the fact that to really make money Bit.ly would have to do something like what Flickr does: charge us money for access to our old items and/or put some sort of weird advertising into the link (hey, interstitial advertising, if you hated it when the news sites did it, you’ll REALLY hate it when the URL shortener sites do it).
6. Twitter has already demonstrated it will stab both users and developers in the back with no notice (IE, Twitter messes with the marketplace and “picks” winners, both on the user side and the developer side). This is nasty stuff for a platform vendor to do. It makes both users and developers distrust the system and makes investors very skittish about potential risks which are much higher now (you’ve gotta not only build awesome technology, but you’ve gotta take @ev and @biz out to lunch a lot and make sure you do whatever they tell you to do — even then you might get stabbed in the back).
7. Twitter talks trash about a lot of its potential partners as we found out when the Twittergate papers were published by TechCrunch. Yes, do you want to do business with these folks that don’t even have the professionalism to keep their name calling off the Internet? (If I had trouble with a partner I’d NEVER write it down or record it anywhere unless I intended it to be public — I’ve seen too many times when employees go “postal” or leave disgruntled and then leak stuff out).”