The Future of Microblogging

by Stubborn Mule on 29 August 2008 · 49 comments

I have been an enthusiastic user of twitter for quite some time now, but I am rapidly coming to the conclusion that it is unlikely to survive, at least in its current form. This is partly because they will struggle to build a business model to start paying off their venture capital backers. But more importantly, it is because twitter is a closed system and that will ultimately constrain its potential.

For those of you not familiar with twitter, it is the most popular of the so-called “microblogs”, along with pownce, plurk, jaiku, kwippy and many others. While these sites vary in their specific features, they are all based around the idea of allowing users to quickly publish short messages (often only 140 characters to fit in a SMS message) viewable by all of their friends online. For users of Facebook, just imagine a site with status updates but no photos, vampires or scrabulous.

Ever since twitter launched, making its services available to users for free, people have wondered about their business model. There is a web school of thought that you should only worry about making money after you build a critical mass of users and Facebook currently appears to be an example of the wisdom of this approach. Twitter has certainly grown rapidly and now boasts some high-profile users such as Barack Obama and 10 Downing Street (the office of the UK Prime Minister). However, its current estimated user base of around 2 million is still well short of the size required to generate adequate returns on the capital invested in the company so far. The recent blog post  Why Twitter will be Sold in a Fire Sale estimates that $20 million has been invested in twitter to date but, even by tapping into a wide range of revenue generating alternatives, the most they could hope to generate from their current user base is around $17 million. So they need a lot more users, and yet their growth rate appears to have slowed of late* and the frequent performance problems the site experienced in July this year cast doubt on their ability to cope with much more growth. The fact that twitter recently had to pull its international SMS service is an indication that financial considerations are starting to bite.

However, the real problem with twitter is that it is a walled garden. The current microblogging environment is like the early days of email. If you were a Compuserve user, you could send messages to other Compuserve users, but not to people on other networks. It was only once email was able to work across different networks that it was able to start realising its potential and become so entrenched in our online lives.

Instant messaging (IM), a successor of sorts to email, never managed to move beyond its initial fragmentation and remains split across AOL, Google Chat, ICQ, iChat and many others. Attempts have been made to bridge the gap with IM clients like Pidgin that work across multiple protocols, but these were really kludges that left the underlying problem unresolved.

IM history is repeating and today if you are a twitter user, your messages are not visible to pownce, twitter or jaiku users. Again the demand for cross-platform messaging is there and this demand has been partially met by sites like Ping, which allows you to post to multiple microblogs and FriendFeed which can receive updates from multiple platforms. However, the real answer lies in following the email example and developing an open protocol for microblogging. Luckily, that has started to emerge in the form of Evan Prodromou’s OpenMicroBlogging specification, which he has implemented in the open-source Laconica application. Just like an email server, Laconica can be installed anywhere to create a local microblog, but users on the local system can also connect to other microblogs that implement the OpenMicroBlogging protocol. This works in much the same way that you can send email not just to colleagues in your own firm, but to anyone anywhere in the world with an email address. Evan uses the phrase “federated servers” to describe this approach.

It is still very early days for Laconica, which was only released a few months ago, but it is already gaining momentum. So far the biggest installation is Evan’s own identi.ca site, which picked up quite a few twitter users in July when twitter was experiencing repeated outages. Like many others who stumbled upon identi.ca at the time, I intially thought it was just a twitter clone with fewer feaures (back in July it didn’t even support replies). But not only did Laconica (and hence identi.ca) start adding features at a furious rate, but I started to appreciate the advantages that the federated approach brings. Here are just a few:

  • Scale: messaging is spread across a distributed network of servers (just like email) rather than having a single point of failure (like twitter).
  • Privacy and Control: web 2.0 evangelists rightly point to the benefits of social tools like twitter, but many organisations would be reluctant to use a public site like twitter for internal discussions. Instead they can have an internal microblog which can also  interact with the outside world.
  • Enhancement: if twitter, pownce or plurk is missing a key feature, you are at the mercy of their developers for getting it implemented. Laconica is open source, so you can always add that killer feature yourself, although the development community is likely to do it for you.

An excellent way to get more of a sense of the enormous potential of the open model, is to have a listen to this FLOSS weekly podcast in which Leo Laporte interviews Evan Prodromou. Leo was so impressed by what he heard that he immediately launched his own microblog on Laconica, the TWiT army.

Whether it is the OpenMicroBlogging protocol, or something very much like it, an open approach to microblogging is clearly the way of the future. Of course, twitter could always respond by adopting the OpenMicroBlogging standard themselves, which would be great for their users. Unfortunately for their venture capital backers, that is likely to make it even harder for twitter to turn a profit.

UPDATE: laconica is now known as status.net.

* Chart data obtained from TwitDir, as described in here.

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{ 33 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Tim Ramsey August 29, 2008 at 1:10 pm

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog.

Tim Ramsey

2 stubbornmule August 29, 2008 at 1:41 pm

@Tim: I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog, and I can assure that like every blogger, I loove to get comments even if you can’t think of much to say!

3 Michael Michael August 29, 2008 at 1:55 pm

‘An ill-assorted collection of poorly-matching parts, forming a distressing whole’ (Granholm); esp. in Computing, a machine, system, or program that has been improvised or ‘bodged’ together; a hastily improvised and poorly thought-out solution to a fault or ‘bug’.

Hence as v. trans., to improvise with a kludge or kludges; also kludged ppl. a.; {sm}kludgemanship, skill in designing or applying kludges.

4 Dan Walsh August 29, 2008 at 6:01 pm

another considered post stubborn. good work.

monetising twitter was always going to be difficult. you’d think the VC’s who’ve stumped up 20m would’ve been aware that making an instant messaging variant pay was going to be tuff, maybe they can see something we cant.

sans a revenue model i’ve been thinking it might be a good ‘mojo’ purchase for a bigger corp (a’la delicious/yahoo), but your comments around its ‘walled garden’ nature have me rethinking, maybe even a trophy buy cant be justified.

they will certainly be stretching the 5x 10x return the money men aim for.

will be interesting to see how it all pans out, i suspect the founders have had fun at least.

5 stubbornmule August 29, 2008 at 6:09 pm

@Dan: Thanks for the comments, and thanks for Kwoffing the story!

Given that Google bought jaiku and don’t seem to be doing much with it, I’d be surprised to see them pick up twitter too. Yahoo do seem to like trohies, but they’re probably a bit pre-occupied at the moment. Not sure who that leaves. Microsoft perhaps?

But as you say, no doubt the twitters have had fun along the way.

6 CarlS August 29, 2008 at 8:36 pm

Let’s push and support the laconica servers around the world. In Germany there is http://bleeper.de – it seems to be the largest installation outside north America !

7 Citizento August 30, 2008 at 7:12 am

@Stubbornmule : great post. Do you think someone will come up soon or later with a laconi.ca – like app without characters limit and more granular privacy settings (and finally drop sms)?

8 stubbornmule August 30, 2008 at 7:28 am

@Citizento: In the FLOSS podcast interview with Evan, he mentioned that dealing with SMS is quite painful and he is clearly hoping that smart phones will become sufficiently common that it will no longer be necessary to support SMS.

As far as the 140 character limit is concerned, I haven’t checked but it may well be an optional setting in Laconica. Even if it’s not, since Laconica is open source, it would always be possible to edit the code to remove the restriction. Either way, it should be easy enough for someone to start a server without the restriction. The only problem that I can see arising would be if someone subscribed from another server and did want to make use of SMS. Even then, the messages might just be split into multiple parts to be sent over SMS.

9 Scot August 30, 2008 at 10:55 am

Nice post and kudos to Evan and the Laconica movement. We should also recognize the work of Brian Hendrickson, lead developer behind OpenMicroblogger.org and its accompanying service OpenMicroblogger.com. Brian has successfully created an alternative to Laconica using Evan’s OpenMicroblogging protocol. We’ve tried both flavours with our sports themed microbloggng site at SportsTwit.com and prefer the latter, but both solutions provide a great opportunity for microblogging to see its vast potential.

10 stubbornmule August 30, 2008 at 12:28 pm

@Scot: thanks to the points to OpenMicroblogger…I hadn’t come across them before.

11 Andy C August 30, 2008 at 10:11 pm

Great article. I am also ex-Twitter, ex-Jaiku and now on identi.ca.

It’s easy to bash Twitter but just look at that graph – 2 million users. That is a big number – 2 million. How many do identica have thus far – 50k ?

I am following developments in OMB with interest.

12 stubbornmule August 30, 2008 at 10:23 pm

@Andy: Thanks for the feedback! Twitter’s growth has been very impressive and there’s no doubt that 2 million is a big number. The problem is that it is not yet a big enough number to support the money that’s been invested in the business. Some of the laconica microblogs springing up (e.g. twitarmy) don’t need to achieve large numbers as they are just forums for their community rather than the primary business.

I should also emphasise that I really hope I’m wrong and that twitter finds a way to survive and, better still, embrace open standards in the process because most of my tweeps are not on indenti.ca.

13 stubbornmule September 3, 2008 at 4:08 pm

Gary “Tuna” Barber has blogged on this topic too (see trackback above) and it is generating some good discussion. Of course I’m biased, because I’m one of the ones in the conversation!

14 Randal L. Schwartz September 17, 2008 at 12:32 am

Thanks for mentioning FLOSS Weekly! And http://army.twit.tv/ is alive and well and being used by many people.

15 Deeta October 8, 2008 at 10:01 pm

You mentioned that IM never succeeded to move beyond its initial fragmentation. An attempt was made though. The jabber project released a federation-able IM server in 2000. (which lead to the XMPP standard). But since then user awareness of freedom issues have increased. So let us hope identi.ca and jabber subscriptions increase in the future and eclipse their closed counterparts ^-^

16 Molly November 14, 2008 at 10:30 pm

I enjoyed reading your article, especially because I’m thinking about starting an OpenMicroBlog especially designed for hotels. You say that you think open microblogs are the way of the future, but do you think an open micro blog specifically geared towards a particular genre of people (mine would be used by hotels & their clients) could work? Or that it could stand a chance of being as successful as the more generic (unselective) microblogs? My service would be free (using publicity to pay for the relatively small amount of money put into making the service). I’d love to hear your opinion/thoughts on such a project! Thanks

17 stubbornmule November 15, 2008 at 11:02 am

@Molly: I certainly think that niche microblogs have a lot of potential and the TWiT Army microblog is a good example. Of course, the key to success is to have a core group of people who are enthusiastic, motivated contributors who feel some sense of belonging to the community in question. To maximise the chances of this happening, it would help if there is already a community in some form (e.g. in the TWiT case these were regular listeners to the TWiT podcast) and then the microblog becomes a natural forum for these people to begin communication with one another.

18 Molly November 17, 2008 at 9:31 pm

@ stubbornmule Thanks for your input! Good points about having a strong community to base the new venture on. I hadn’t considered the community aspect from that perspective. And now that I think about it, the service I’m planning isn’t really meant to be community based. In the sense that each hotel sees only responses/comments they’ve made and comments users have sent directly to them. Every user will see only the comments they sent to hotels and all the comments they received from hotels. (In reality it’s the same microblog that everyone is using, but the comments are private so that only the two people involved in the communication see them. There is also the option to make a post public, but I think the majority of the dialog will be private). Do you think this type of microblog could perhaps be too individualized/too niche?)

19 stubbornmule November 17, 2008 at 10:05 pm

@Molly: In that case, it sounds like you’d be using it more like a discussion forum. While a microblog can certainly work like that, you may want to consider whether you want some of the other features that a more traditional forum would offer, such as thread topics. In a forum, people can zero in on the particular topics of interest to them, while a microblog is a less structured conversation. If you don’t feel that you need the structure, microblogs do have the advantage of being flexible for users: they can dip in and out, subscribe to rss feeds, search etc.

20 Molly November 18, 2008 at 7:07 pm

@ Stubbornmule
You’re right. In the end it is a microblogger in the sense that the technical workings behind the service is a twitter clone, but by customizing it and making the messages almost always private, it desocializes the microblog.

The communication is site owner -> user/ user ->site owner, but never user -> user. I was afraid if we made user comments public, the service would turn into a sort-of trip advisor where everyone gives their two cents about the establishment (these reviews could be phony or vulgar and would need moderation).

Instead, all user comments are either private notes for themself or direct questions/requests to the hotel (only the hotel owner sees these requests, they are not public).

As far as using the structure of a discussion forum, I was thinking that since the comments are taggable, the entries will be organized into subjects in this way. I thought this would be better than setting up a mini-forum for each hotel structure in which the users have to respond to a particular thread. (though they could also create a new thread…) I like the freedom of the microblogger better. Do you think more structure would be better?

It will also be possible to rank comments according to their importance so users can remember which comments are more important.

Perhaps we could add some suggestions about what to write/ask the hotels so that users have some focus.

I am considering expanding the service so that it can be used on any site, not just for hotels, and so at first didn’t want to limit the scope. But maybe you’re right, users need some direction (like there is in a forum).

Thanks again for sharing your thoughts!

21 James January 18, 2009 at 6:48 pm

So, microblogs like twitter are walled gardens? well, yes they are, but how is facebook not also a walled garden? In contrast to systems like compuserve or the fidonet, which did have gateways to other systems, facebook is closed, not letting you export your contacts, send mail outside of facebook. Basically facebook datamines your interests and connections and offers walled garden social networking as a side-effect.

22 stubbornmule January 19, 2009 at 12:39 pm

@James: I completely agree that facebook is a walled garden too. This is an issue that Joshua Porter raised last year and the discussion in the comments there are interesting too. It may take a long time, but I think that this will sow the seeds of Facebook’s downfall.

23 Andy C January 19, 2009 at 6:27 pm

Facebook is a walled garden. Twitter is closed software.

Laconica/identica are examples of Open Micro Blogging platforms. The software is open and the data is yours.

24 stubbornmule January 20, 2009 at 8:20 am

@Andy C: I agree entirely (in fact, that is the gist of this post!)

25 Gaurav October 8, 2009 at 3:41 pm

twitter and others are no doubt nice, but I always wanted to bring in a concept to microblogging !

I hereby post a Review-Request for http://www.emote.in,

A microblogging service; which is a platform to –
1. Make yourself heard, comment on news, stories and current affair.
2. Share your experiences, memories and events with your friends and family.
3. Connect with different people with similar emotional attributes as yours.
(eg: if atrocities on animals make you sad, connect with others who share the same feeling)
4. Jot-down your experiences. You usually have so many things to say – a constant stream of thoughts, comments and observations running through your head continuously.
5. Last but not the least, has everything (and much more) that twitter has.
6. A wonderful timeline coming shortly (in few weeks)

26 stubbornmule October 8, 2009 at 4:03 pm

Gaurav: I will have a look at emote.in and let you know what I think about it.

27 Andy C October 8, 2009 at 5:16 pm

@Gaurav You built and customised a status.net instance.

Lovely work but hardly ‘bringing a new concept to microblogging’.

28 stubbornmule October 10, 2009 at 10:06 am

Gaurav: I’d have to say, I agree with Andy. So far you’ve got a microblogging site built on status.net (formerly known as laconica) and that’s about it. To offer something compelling you need either (i) a vibrant community that people will be drawn to, which takes a long time and twitter already has critical mass there and you’d also be a long way behind identi.ca or (ii) some unique and very attractive functionality. You say emote.in already has much more than twitter, but I can’t see anything that would tempt existing twitter users over.

29 Gaurav December 15, 2009 at 3:47 am

Hi @andy c @stubbornmule , I appreciate ur comments on emote.

We recently got reviewed by killerstartups -> http://www.killerstartups.com/Comm/emote-in-microblog-the-way-your-are-feeling

We have introduced “emotion selector” and “yaho messenger smiley support”.
These features are unique to emote and help users to express themselves better by attaching an emotion to every notice.

Also, please have a look at the HORIZONTAL scrolling timeline added on user profile page (eg http://www.emote.in/gaurav ) . This will act as a on-line journal and lets a user go back in time whenever he/she feels like reminiscing about their past. Only emote has this kind of vertical + horizontal notice display.

Along with this, we have also pulled up an informative index page too.

We will continuously keep adding relevant stuff to emote timely.

Please have a look at emote now.. It took time as we are only 2 guys and working on emote part time ;)

I re-invite u to have a look at http://www.emote.in again.

Regards,
Gaurav

30 Stubborn Mule February 20, 2010 at 2:44 pm

I am currently testing a status.net microblog for the Stubborn Mule. For now, you can find it here: Mule Stable.

31 Robert Beagle August 23, 2010 at 1:57 pm

over 100 million users (April 2010) so Twitter may not die out soon

32 Stubborn Mule August 23, 2010 at 4:27 pm

Robert: you are right that Twitter is showing no signs of weakening and I expect it to be around for quite some time to come. Nevertheless, identi.ca has also continued to grow, so there are alternatives out there!

33 Alan Ieftin February 1, 2011 at 9:51 pm

I think the Twitter end is very far away. I said that because the Bing and Google team said that these networks was effect in the Google rankings. This is a good info for Twitter users because they can promote their online business thorough this channel.

Personally, I don’t love very much the Twitter network but I use it to promote my websites.

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