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Friday, August 24, 2012

Twitter, app.net, followers, and personal assistants

I've been watching this whole "app.net" situation from the sidelines just trying to make sense of the whole thing. From my perspective, it looks like a bunch of people are fed up with Twitter on some technical level and are bugging out to clone it somewhere else. Assuming this works, then there will simply be two Twitters, and one of them will have a different name.

There's a lot of hate for "what they are doing to developers". Speaking as someone who mostly uses Twitter for reading and rarely posts anything out there, I can't say this affects me. When I do go there, it happens in my web browser, and that's not going away. I suspect plenty of people use their site that way, since they're obviously unconcerned about pissing off people who use custom clients.

I've been trying to make the point to some of my friends that if enough of their users don't notice or don't care, it won't matter. They'll keep doing their own thing as long as they can use the site to do what they want to do. That might mean it turns into a land full of celebrities and businesses and, well, yes, ordinary people.

The techie contingent being squeezed out is basically no different than Homer yelling at Moe that "you just lost a customer!" over the din of his cash register when the "Flaming Moe" takes off.

So, clearly, some people think the solution is to stand up another site. They may actually be correct.

Then there are the people doing things like Diaspora or Tent and/or the FreedomBox who want a decentralized approach. They don't want to create yet another centralized site, so they spread things out in a peer-to-peer fashion. They, too, may also be correct.

But there are still the folks who will be on Twitter and nowhere else, or they might be battling Russian spam bots on LiveJournal, or doing whatever people do on MySpace. There are also the people like me who just stand up their own site and write stuff and let people discover it.

None of these are necessarily wrong, but there's an obvious catch which rankles the nerds: there's no one format for all of this. Tweets aren't RSS feeds, RSS feeds aren't Atom feeds, Atom feeds aren't plain non-syndicated web log posts, and plain web log posts aren't Tweets. They're all different.

Someone's going to come along and propose the Grand Unified Protocol which will fix all of this. All it will take is for Twitter, app.net, Facebook, MySpace, and every single RSS/Atom feed to switch to it. Then we'll all be compatible and we'll be able to follow each other no matter what service we use. Yaaaaay!

Cough. Snort. That'll never happen. Oh, someone will make a GUP, for sure. There will be several of them, each touted as the solution which will make all of the others crumble into the dust. That won't happen, but lots of time and effort will be spent in the attempts.

At that point, instead of just having all of those sites with their own APIs and formats, we'll have all of those sites, plus the new ones springing up which speak those new protocols. Brilliant!

The horse is out of the barn, and it's not going back in.

If you know anything about standards and protocols, you should be thinking of a certain xkcd by now. It's true.

Ultimately, I think this can all be reduced to Postel's law. We're going to have to live with a variety of competing formats which all solve the same basic problems. We can complain about it, or we can make tools which smooth over as many of those as possible to let us follow our friends no matter where they might end up.

Think about it this way. If you have an above-average amount of money and also have demands in how you buy things, do you try to change every business to work the way you want? No. Instead, you hire an assistant to worry about that stuff for you. The underlying businesses may still be strange and unfriendly, but that's the assistant's problem. You're insulated from it by this "interface".

Our assistants are these marvelous programmable computers. Let's make them do this work for us.