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Opening Up Microblogging

A newly launched company called Identi.ca is taking advantage of an open-source platform to challenge Twitter.

The first open-source challenge to the pioneering microblogging site Twitter launched earlier this month. Identi.ca, built using open-source software Laconica, was started by the Montreal-based company Control Yourself. The site is getting attention from microbloggers who hope that Identi.ca will improve upon Twitter, which has been plagued by problems.

Identity on Identi.ca: Newcomer microblogging site Identi.ca is based on the open-source software Laconica and contains most of the features common to microbloggings sites. Users can build a profile (shown above) and post updates in 140-or-fewer-character bursts. The site supports updates posted through the Web or through instant messages, but it currently lacks support for text messages.

The trend of microblogging–which allows users to express themselves in short bursts that are then distributed to a network of friends–is reaching new heights. According to TwitDir, a site that tracks Twitter statistics, more than two million people have accounts with the microblogging service. But in spite of widespread fascination with the hip startup, the company has been struggling even as its popularity peaks, suffering from downtime and trouble accommodating the site’s burgeoning population. While many users have stayed loyal to the service, others have investigated alternatives, such as Jaiku, Pownce, and Plurk.

Twitter launched its free service in October 2006, making it possible for people to answer the question “What are you doing?” by sending text messages or instant messages, or posting to the Twitter website. Users could watch the stream of posts on the public timeline, or “follow” specific Twitter users in order to receive their updates. Since then, third-party developers have built a variety of applications, such as Twhirl, that give users even more options for how to interact with the service. In addition to posting updates about the minutiae of daily life, people began using Twitter to communicate with each other at conferences, organize meet-ups, and distribute links to news stories and images.

Evan Prodromou, Identi.ca’s founder, says that he came to see Twitter as a form of communication on a level with e-mail, blogging, and podcasting. “I was starting to feel dependent personally on Twitter as a communication medium,” he says, “and I realized that’s not the way that the Web that we’ve built works. Having one company be the sole controller of a particular communication medium is kind of difficult. It’s not something that is sustainable in the long run for the Web.” Prodromou says that he felt people needed an open-source version of the tool.

Identi.ca started out as a stripped-down version of Twitter, with only the most basic capabilities. (Identi.ca, for example, does not yet support posting by text message, although users can post through the Web interface or instant messages.) In the two weeks since Identi.ca’s launch, however, the developer community has quickly added several features, including a search function and the ability for users to track updates in response to their own.

Beyond simply replicating features of Twitter, however, Prodromou made a few important changes to how Identi.ca’s open-source core, Laconica, is set up. The software is designed so that anyone who wants to host a microblogging site can do so by running Laconica on his own servers. Because of this, Laconica includes features that allow people hosted on different servers to subscribe to each other’s posts. To do this, Prodromou wrote OpenMicroBlogging, a suggested standard for use in communication between microblogging services. The standard is based largely on OAuth, an existing standard that allows users to give websites “valet keys” to their personal information, sharing what is needed but keeping the rest protected. Prodromou says that he envisions a federated network of microblogs, able to share data with each other without relying on a single organization’s servers to keep the system running.

Although Laconica is currently the only microblogging service to support OpenMicroBlogging, Prodromou says that he hopes other microblogging sites will adopt it in the near future. Even without that support, the standard allows users hosted through different servers running Laconica to stay in touch.

Ryan Paul, a journalist and open-source software developer, is the major force behind Gwibber, an open-source desktop microblogging client that was the first to support Identi.ca. Gwibber allows its users to both send to and receive from microblogging sites in a client that runs through the desktop and doesn’t require the user to constantly refresh a website to see changes. The client also supports many other services, including Twitter, Jaiku, and Facebook. “My personal feeling about microblogging services is that without a client, it’s not going to get uptake very quickly,” Paul says. However, Gwibber currently works only on Linux. Paul notes that, although Laconica is still in its early stages, he thinks it’s a good starting reference point for efforts such as the OpenMicroBlogging standard. “I think that if you just put a standard out there, or if you just write a standard without having code alongside it, then you’re going to have problems,” he says. By contrast, he adds, having a body of code to work with helps a standard stay in sync with the demands of daily use.

Pete Prodoehl, an early technology blogger and early adopter of both Twitter and Identi.ca, says that he tried out the new service partly out of frustration with Twitter’s downtime, and partly because of his interest in open source. Prodoehl, who has more than 700 followers on Twitter and more than 100 subscribers on Identi.ca, recently instigated a “Twitter-Free Friday,” encouraging users to try out competitors of the troubled service. He says that, in order for Identi.ca to keep gaining ground, it’s important for the service to keep adding the capabilities that people have gotten used to elsewhere. Crucial, he says, is an interface that developers can use to easily build clients for Identi.ca.

Identi.ca’s Prodromou says that he hopes to work on getting more participation in the OpenMicroBlogging standard, and also on improving Identi.ca’s features. While no microblogging site has a clear business model, Prodromou hopes to make money by helping businesses build and host their own microblogging services based on Laconica, and possibly by adding premium services or advertising.

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