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The 5 (insignificant) ways Micro-blogging is different from Blogging: How to create an open Twitter alternative

Added on by Chris Saad.

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 headline of this post hints at, in my belief, the key to making this dream a reality.

The fact is, there are only 5 insignificant differences between Micro blogging and normal Blogging. I will try to detail them below. 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, but rather to realize that most of the pieces already exist in the current blogging ecosystem. With a few modifications a distributed micro-blogging ecosystem can easily emerge.

When I say the the differences are insignificant, I mean that while collectivelly they change the usage model significantly, examining them each one-by-one shows how small the gap is between what we have today and what we need.

1. Length

Micro-blogs 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 'Micro-blogging mode'. I don't think this particular difference (or how to bridge it) warrants much more explanation

2. Real-time

While blogs used to update rather slowly in a publish/subscribe model, Micro-blogging has had a reputation for being 'faster' or 'real-time'. The old school refresh rate of 15 minutes or more (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 micro-bogging.

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 and Wordpress, Buzz and countless other smaller services.

Blogs are already real-time.

3. Identified Subscriptions

One of the nice things that Twitter does that traditional Blogging software does not do is 'Identified Subscriptions'. That is, when you subscribe (aka 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 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/avatar, it might provide a URL to the subscribing user's own microblogging site which has that metadata stored in the header.

4. Addressability

This is perhaps the most complicated difference/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 0. 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 re-invent 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 point 3) and when you type '@' 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.

5. Clients

Why can't existing Twitter clients allow users to subscribe to PubSubHub enabled RSS/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/could be fundamentally the same as Blogging in terms of the mechanics and technologies involved. The techniques used to build/improve the open blogosphere could be used to bootstrap a microblogging sphere as well.

Many have made big strides in this area such as Statusnet. The opportunity now is for the (ex?)Twitter Clients, Blog Publishing Platforms and the standards groups to make small tweaks to extend the technology in the right way.