Save me from the Twitter clones

It was a great idea for one start-up. Maybe two. Or three. But this is getting ridiculous.

Rafe Needleman Former Editor at Large
Rafe Needleman reviews mobile apps and products for fun, and picks startups apart when he gets bored. He has evaluated thousands of new companies, most of which have since gone out of business.
Rafe Needleman
4 min read

Every time I get invited to a new microblogging service, I cringe. Because once I try it (which, of course, I will; I can't help myself) and develop even a small network of people on it, I can't really leave. I don't want to be rude to people I've started to communicate with. And then I get mad.

Kwippy, the latest Twitter-alike

The latest sites to earn my wrath: Kwippy, Identi.ca, and Plurk. There's nothing inherently wrong with these services. They all have good features. Identi.ca is an open-source Twitter competitor; Kwippy integrates nicely with IM networks and has no character limit; Plurk has a neat timeline view and an addictive "karma" points system.

But, to my dismay, I have friends on each service (not so many on Kwippy, since it's the newest), not to mention last year's Twitter-alikes, Pownce and Jaiku. And there is just no way a person can participate in a half-dozen microblog services and do any of them justice, especially if he or she uses the services' sites alone. We've been here before, with IM networks (and we've seen solutions, like Trillian and Meebo). For microblogs, there are emerging solutions for people who want to participate on multiple services. Here are the solutions, but after this list I'll tell you why they don't work:

Solution 1: Link the accounts together. Many services will grab updates from others and post them to their own stream. For example, Pownce and Facebook both read my Twitter feeds. So I can update Twitter, and any followers I have on Pownce or Facebook also see what I am up to.

Solution 2: Use a multi-posting tool. You can update a dozen nanoblog services at once with Ping.FM. It's what I generally use when I want to reach all my followers on all my nanoblogs. There are other specialized multi-posting tools; for example, Twitterfeed, which lets you funnel RSS feeds into Twitter.

Solution 1 + 2 = Danger! It's easy to find yourself using both native cross-posting tools as well an independent multi-poster like Ping.FM. But if you do that, it's easy to double up on postings, and end up with the same item appearing in some places more than once. Dave Winer calls these duplicate posts "echoes." A solution is to just use Ping.FM, but then you have to remember to use it any time you want to post to more than one service.

Plurk's clever timeline view.

Here's the real problem with these solutions: Neither allows true participation in all the services at once. If you're using Ping.FM to update Twitter and Plurk, for example, and you want to read what your friends are doing on both of them, you have to visit both sites to see what's happening. Moreover, you have to use the services to reply to your friends' items on the services, and when you do that, your replies are limited to just that service.

Personal feed aggregator FriendFeed offers a partial solution to this issue: Conversations on FriendFeed that are based on Twitter posts can be fed back into Twitter. But FriendFeed doesn't post to every service it reads from, so conversations you have on it might not make it back to the originating site. FriendFeed also tends to hijack conversations from original sources, slowly stripping away their communities.

You can use the nanoblog client Twhirl to read and reply to posts on Twitter, FriendFeed, Identi.ca, and Seesmic. But again, any conversations you participate in on one service are limited to just that one. CEO Loic Le Meur has said he's working on tighter service integration in the software.

As long as entrepreneurs keep thinking that their precious new nanoblog features deserve new networks to support them, we are going to have this problem. There is the potential that a unified authentication system like OpenID or Facebook Connect could go part of the way toward solving the issue, eventually. But to be clear, there's no real reason today that any entrepreneur should capitulate to Twitter or any other service in this growing market. We're in a Wild West stage of nanoblog expansion, which means that for users trying to get keep their friends in just one or two social networking corrals, things will likely get worse before they get better.

Meanwhile, I have found, as have many other geeks have, that FriendFeed offers the best combination of content and community. Follow me here. And this, by the way, illustrates the solution to the current free-for-all expansion of the nanoblog market: Find a service you like, and convince your friends to join it.