You can't get there from here

Today was the day that Leo Laporte jumped into the Tw*tter odyssey with both feet. He interviewed developer Evan Prodromou on one of his myriad non-stop podcasts that are also streamed live on his TwitTV channel. As have many of us, Leo has grown frustrated with Twitter’s troubles and seems to have stopped taking seriously the idea, as he put it with more than a touch of sarcasm, that Twitter “is working to restore IM service to our users.”

To the contrary, the company has long since passed by the benefit of the doubt about all things related to XMPP service and the underlying Track functionality that is now widely understood as the crown jewels of the service. Whether it’s limits on API calls or business deals with companies such as Gnip that only allow notification of tweets but require the same API blockade to retrieve them, in short, as the old Bert and I record used to say: “You can’t get there from here.”

Twitter’s continued silence on this front betrays the kind of arrogance reminiscent of the Microsoft of pre-antitrust days, when questions from users or journalists about most subjects were difficult to get asked let alone be answered. Company executives and engineers alike were walled off from the press, and opportunities for Q & A carefully proscribed to provide enough access to sell whatever the pitch was but not enough to dive down. A interview with Google CEO Eric Schmidt some months ago seemed to fall into that familiar category.

Of course, since Robert Scoble’s days at Microsoft, corporate “transparency” is the new black. These days you can tell the real secrets by the length of time the questions go unanswered. The real secret with Twitter is simple: can we (Twitter) play out the clock long enough to establish enough market force to create a data stream valuable enough to auction off to marketers at an unassailable efficiency. Sort of Adsense for micro-blogging, or attention rank, or whatever you want to call a relevance engine for micro-objects. and the open source Laconica code base it sits on top of represent the first real threat to that strategy, mostly because so far Prodromou has carefully matched Twitter fundamentals step by step. Laporte’s delight in realizing he could establish an instance of Laconica and federate it with other nodes was palpable. But several things emerged in his conversation with Prodromou that bear watching, and perhaps concern by those who hope Twitter’s apparent hammerlock might be broken.

For one, Leo drew some interesting details out about future enhancements on the drawing boards, including one that could easily derail’s forward progress. Not so coincidently, it was the much mentioned Track feature that Prodromou indicated was in the cards for itself. Forgetting for a moment that building Track into the cloud would exclude other Laconica servers from the results, the native strategy disrupts the very reason why proved so seductive in the first place.

Namely, that’s wide open XMPP data stream provided all the incentive necessary for third party developers to hook up to the new service. What better enticement than the very feed that Twitter has so desperately hoarded since May. The same one that Summize leveraged to extract 10% of the company when it was acquired. The same one that Twhirl has been denied. And when Twhirl implemented the stream, you had a visceral demonstration of the difference when bridges appeared to post items on Twitter.

You can sit there and watch it: type a message into the Update GTalk (Jabber) IM window and watch it pop up in Twhirl in seconds. The bridge copies it over to Twitter, and API calls surface it perhaps a minute later. But Track is all about discovery, about real time conversations between nodes that may not know, or “follow” each other synchronously. By including the user name of a target in your message to someone who is running track on their name, you can establish a real time conversation on the spot. Twitter’s @reply messages work just fine with track, as do hashtags (#keyword) and other topic cues.

But Twitter won’t let outside services access the XMPP stream in real-time; the only third party service that does this via Jabber IM siphons data off of the Summize stream but only querying every 10-15 minutes. By the time you see the Track hit, the conversation is long over on where it proceeds in real time with ease.

The mullti-app, multi-window hack that I just described is not friendly to those who don’t know the system’s value, but real time conversation is being used on to literally construct the platform. Ideas and features are debated between developers who’ve never talked, with code being constructed in the background, checked into the Laconica base, and surfacing in the core at a dizzying pace. And I’ve been using the same tools to cajole, encourage, and even threaten people to maintain the pace of providing a credible open alternative to Twitter’s stonewalling.

That’s why the potential to kill the golden goose is so unnerving.’s very strength is in attracting third party developers such as Dustin Sallings, whose IdentiSpy Track feature works right now on’s cloud and will include new Laconica instances like Leo’s when he launches it. Building Track into the core is the same strategy that undermined Twitter’s original promise when it opened up its API and garnered the wealth of third party apps that drove so much of its adoption by users.

At its heart, the anger with Twitter is not over its wanting to monetize its invention but rather the violation of the contract we all signed on for, namely to establish relationships with our friends and most importantly friends we don’t yet know about. It’s a bait and switch Twitter has pulled, establishing the cloud and then pulling the plug on our relationships, and I for one of many take it personally.

That’s why I’m thrilled that Leo Laporte has put his weight behind the arrow, and also why it’s important for all of us to make sure we don’t trade one gatekeeper for another just over the hill. We need to preserve the open access to the innovation of a thousand points of light, the third party developers that attract the millions of users that give us the power Twitter has uncovered. Or else, we’ll hear that same Down East refrain over and over again.