Given the recent developments in the Twitter developer ecosystem, I think it’s a good time to revisit the idea of an open Web alternative to Twitter.
The fact is, the differences between microblogging and normal blogging are insignificant. I’m going to detail five of the differences. My point in doing so is to illustrate that the best way to bootstrap an open alternative to Twitter is not by inventing a bunch of new technologies or products. Instead, I want to show that most of the pieces already exist in the current blogging ecosystem. With a few modifications, a distributed microblogging ecosystem can easily emerge.
Guest author Chris Saad is VP of strategy at Echo, the world’s leading provider of comment/conversation technology to Tier 1 publishers. His role is to track trends in the marketplace, listen to and participate in the community and translate those needs into actionable product direction. His background includes co-authoring of the Attention Profiling Markup Language (APML) specification, and co-founding the DataPortability Project. Used by Digg, BBC, NewsGator, France Telecom and others, APML is industry standard for Attention Profiles. The DataPortability project’s mission is to advocate interoperable data portability for users, developers and vendors.
Microblogs are, well, micro. They are shorter. This is not some marvelous invention – it is a simple, imposed limitation on the input field. Any publishing software today, from WordPress to Drupal, can be modified to force users to stick to 140 characters – call it “microblogging mode”. I don’t think this particular difference (or how to bridge it) warrants much more explanation.
While blogs used to update rather slowly in a publish and subscribe model, microblogging has had a reputation for being faster or real time. The old school refresh rate of 15 minutes or more (the time between RSS refreshes) seems like an eternity these days.
Of course the reality is that the Twitter API is still incapable of sending updates to individual clients in real time, and the whole thing is far from real time. Updates in seconds, however, is a key trait of microbogging.
The fact is, however, that blogs now have a method of pushing updates that’s faster and more effective than even the Twitter API. It’s an open standard called PubSubHub and it’s supported by both Blogger, WordPress, Buzz and countless other smaller services.
Blogs are already real time.
One of the nice things that Twitter does that traditional Blogging software does not do is called Identified Subscriptions. That is, when you subscribe to (a.k.a follow) a user, their name and face appear in your sidebar, and you get a nice little ego boost in the form of a notification email and increase in your follower count.
Why couldn’t we add a simple mechanism to PubSubHub so that when a client subscribes to push updates, it leaves behind some optional identifying information about the user like their name and avatar? Or maybe instead of leaving the actual username and avatar, it might provide a URL to the subscribing user’s own microblogging site that has that metadata stored in the header.
This is perhaps the most complicated difference and gap to close. With Twitter, you can easily say, “Hey @chrissaad you are are a crazy hippy” and I will get it in my message stream.
Blogs can’t do that right?
Well, actually, blogs have been doing addressability since day zero. The same way the rest of the Web does addressability – using links. Bloggers frequently link to each other and then check their trackbacks and pingbacks for incoming references.
The only problem with this model is that it’s not user friendly enough. Mainstream users don’t understand URLs and checking pingback and referrer logs is just plain silly.
So rather than reinvent the wheel, why not just add rubber?
To make it easier for users, imagine if blogging software kept track of the users you were following (see Identified Subscriptions above) and when you type the equivalent of “@”, they provided a list of suggested aliases to choose from. When you select the person you are addressing, the software could insert the alias and hyperlink the name to the associated URL of that user’s microblogging site.
Clients, then, could subscribe to Google Blog Search (remember blog search is essentially the blogging world’s open firehose) and search for any reference to your personal URL.
The rest is just presentation tricks to show those replies mixed in with the rest of your microblogging items.
Why can’t existing Twitter clients allow users to subscribe to PubSubHub enabled RSS and Atom feeds. They would also subscribe to the Google Blog Search for references to your own URL (for @ replies). No need to rip and replace Twitter, just offer an open alternative: subscribe to any site – anywhere.
As you can see here, microblogging is and could be fundamentally the same as blogging in terms of the mechanics and technologies involved. The techniques used to build and improve the open blogosphere could be used to bootstrap a microblogging sphere as well.
There have been many big strides in this area, such as Status.net. The opportunity now is for the (ex?) Twitter clients and blog publishing platforms and the standards groups to make small tweaks to extend the technology in the right way.