Home & Office

Fleeing walled gardens: can we be open and stay social?

The news of Twitter's cooling enthusiasm for its third-party friends worries me. For a long time, I've admired Twitter's strategy of making an engine and letting others use that engine to evolve the overall service in clever ways.
Written by David Meyer, Contributor

The news of Twitter's cooling enthusiasm for its third-party friends worries me. For a long time, I've admired Twitter's strategy of making an engine and letting others use that engine to evolve the overall service in clever ways. So much for that. As of last Friday, the company wants anyone thinking of developing a new Twitter client to give up now, and the future for even established clients like Tweetdeck, Peep and so on looks very murky.

In other words, Twitter's canny modus operandi is starting to look less like openness and more like bait-and-switch (I'm not saying it is bait-and-switch; indeed, I suspect this is primarily a function of the money-men getting involved). But that, of course, is what happens when you have a single-vendor service that lacks open standards — it may feel open because it's free and everyone you know uses it, but you're totally at the mercy of that one company. If they change their way of doing things and you don't like it, tough.

The problem is particularly marked when it comes to social networking services. I've lost count of the number of people I know who are severely creeped out by Facebook's ever-shifting privacy policies, but feel disinclined to switch to any other social network because their friends aren't there. So they either deliberately forget about the privacy issue or they curtail their usage. If they were using a social network with open standards and data portability, they could move to an alternative and take their social links with them — with Facebook, they can't.

Twitter's another form of social network, of course, and so (arguably) is Skype. I'm singling these three out because they are, in my experience, the biggest: the social communication services that are used by most people I know. None of them employs open standards at their core. All of them are free (at the moment), but all of them lock in their users. Everyone loves to whinge about them when something goes wrong, but no-one can leave.

So what are the alternatives? By their very nature, the open-standards rivals to Facebook, Twitter and Skype are numerous, so I've just picked out one notable, open-source and open-standards alternative to each:

Freaked out by Facebook? Try Diaspora! Troubled by Twitter? Give Identi.ca a shot! Squeamish about Skype? Then Jitsi might be for you!

(I have only limited experience of all three of these, but they seem to do the job. If you have better alternatives that fit the open mould, do let me know.)

Of the three, Jitsi probably represents the easiest switch. Known until last Friday as SIP Communicator — the team changed the name because the client had moved on from just being a SIP client — Jitsi is super-compatible with a lot of other VoIP services because it uses, er, SIP (so does Skype, but to a more limited extent). It also supports messaging protocols such as XMPP (hello Google Talk and Facebook Chat) and widely-used services such as MSN, Yahoo IM, AIM etc, so it's a handy replacement client for all sorts of things.

Identi.ca (runs on StatusNet, which is licensed under Affero GPLv3+) and Diaspora (AGPL) are far more problematic. Unlike the Skype/Jitsi situation, this is not simply a matter of downloading a new client and convincing contacts to do the same. This is serious investment stuff. People spend years cultivating their Facebook profiles and contact lists and Twitter followerships. The fact that you can't just move that data across is simultaneously the raison d'être of the open-standards web clients, and their Achilles' heel.

Both Identi.ca and Diaspora have functionality that is similar to their infinitely better-known rivals, but they lack many of the bells and whistles. Their basic web clients just don't look as nice. They also lack anything approaching the user-base size enjoyed by Facebook and Twitter. In the case of Identi.ca, there's also a serious issue with client support — the StatusNet project even has a page dedicated to badgering client developers to allow Identi.ca/StatusNet functionality — that makes it much harder for the service to sneak in under the radar.

The big issue is that the people aren't there; they're hanging around within the confines of walled gardens. And the vast majority don't really care, which is why they're still using Facebook and Twitter, not Diaspora or Identi.ca or some other, similar open alternatives.

I'm not getting preachy here. I use Twitter, Facebook and Skype myself, because I'm social and that's where my friends, family and contacts are. I just wish I could make better use of my Identi.ca and Diaspora profiles. I wish it wasn't so much effort, and I wish the rewards extended past feeling smug about my adherence to open standards.

Because above all, when bad things happen in those walled gardens, I'd like the rolling fields of open standards to be as populated, pretty and innovative as their proprietary alternatives. And I want everyone I know there with me.

Editorial standards