Social networking, micro-blogging and other such buzzwords abound across web development these days, and the "public" is a fickle as ever. The darling of the media-driven, web-based section of the public is dropped as soon as it gets popular or as soon as somebody figures out a way to make money out of it -- money usually involves advertising, which usually ends up bombarding users with spurious post-mercials. How can free software make an impact in such an environment and create forms of social business? Enter Identi.ca
In the beginning there was Facebook
Once upon a time, Facebook was the new thing. It offered ways to find and stay in touch with old and current friends, sharing photo's and poking each other. But Facebook developed some problems: firstly it got popular. Millions of people started using it including (shock) the parents of the original user-set. So now all the students and graduates had to watch what they posted - they started to leave, but for Facebook it mattered little as their new demographic increased in both age and disposable income. This leads me to their second problem: applications. Once people realised there was money with applications and Facebook users, the application-space grew and it came with increased advertising. Many facebookers got fed up and frustrated that the main reason they signed up -- keeping up with their friends -- was becoming lost amongst a cacophony of adverts and "What 80s sitcom character are you?" type applications.
The third problem with Facebook -- although they would never really see it as one, was the lack of a free software alternative to it. The code the server runs on is closed, locked away and you don't get to find out what happens to all your personal data handled by it. Perhaps one reason why there's no real free software alternative to Facebook is because by the time we figured out there could be one, the horse had bolted and "everybody" was using Facebook itself. What is all the more galling is that Facebook makes use of several free software technologies itself but that's no new thing -- is it Google? Aside from that it feels like there's generally no real urgency to create such a free software application and if nothing else, the free software community waits until it gets an itch before it starts scratching.
Twitter is also proprietary which is less than preferable
For many the natural successor to Facebook is Twitter. Certainly the popular media has gotten hold of it which is in turn driving up the user count. Twitter was described to me as "just the status updates from Facebook" but in reality it's a different approach for a different group. You're also restricted to 140 characters which proves interesting and has created a proliferation in URL shortening services. Users of Twitter don't have friends, they have followers who they are less likely to have met. The difference is reflected in the type of posts (Tweets) you see. Although the mundane daily details of daily life creep in, personal details do not. Twitter is also quite devoid of tools within it although the user-community has come up with their own. Thus hashtags were born. Pre-pend a word in your tweet with a # and others searching for that hashtag will find your tweet also. Hashtags are not officially supported by Twitter, but they do work and you can get feeds on searches for a particular hashtag. It's how the tweets on the right of this page (from the #freesoftware hashtag) are collated. But Twitter has limits. While hashtags are used, there's no effective way to have all tweets containing a hashtag fed into your stream or timeline -- a series of tweets you or those you follow have posted. Twitter is also proprietary which is less than preferable. A number of the plethora of Twitter clients are also proprietary which is a pain. Although several free software ones exist, they're just not as good in my opinion.
Identi.ca -- the free software micro-blogger.
Identi.ca is similar to Twitter but built on and developed as free software
Identi.ca is just over a year old, it's similar to Twitter and is built on and developed as free software. Specifically it is built on the Laconi.ca micro-blogging application. So yes, that means you can build your own micro-blogging site. Like Twitter, Identi.ca provides 140 characters to tell the world (or those are subscribed to your feed) what it is you want to say. Identi.ca has some advantages over Twitter as well which I believe have sprung from it being free software. Firstly there are groups. While hashtags are supported, Identi.ca also provides groups which are pre-pended with a !. Thus if you post a Dent (a post) containing !linux, anybody who is a member of the !linux group will see your Dent on their home feed. Consider it a cross between a mailing-list, IRC and Twitter. The effect is that on Identi.ca you get a greater number of group conversations than you do on Twitter. Twitter is one-to-many, Identi.ca can be as well but through groups it becomes many-to-many. Thus on Twitter you'll see more re-tweeting (RT) as a way to propagate tweets. On Identi.ca people will often either post to a group or a Dent will be re-dented to a group.
The second thing about Identi.ca is that it's not precious about its users. The people behind Identi.ca seem to accept that many of its users will also have Twitter accounts and they've made it easy to integrate. Easy to apply settings can cross-post your Dents to Twitter, with the nice feature that you can have it ignore replies you might be sending to Identi.ca users. Now you know what all those !groups are doing in your Twitter timeline. In addition it helps you to find those you follow on Twitter who have Identi.ca accounts. Yes Twitter does similar to Facebook, Facebook does the same with Gmail but Facebook does not do the same with Bebo or MySpace to my knowledge. As you'd expect with a free software-based service, the clients are pretty much all free software as well. Some of them are almost identical in functionality to proprietary Twitter ones -- Identifox for example.
Whilst the signal-to-noise ratio on Identi.ca is similar to that of Twitter, the noise is often of more interest
The last thing I want to say about Identi.ca is that because it's not so well publicised it attracts fewer noise-makers. These would be the users that exist -- or so it seems -- purely to advertise the latest get-rich-quick scheme or other snake-oil. Thus on Identi.ca you could say that whilst the signal-to-noise ratio is similar to that of Twitter, the noise is often of more interest than Twitter. Because of its free software heritage, Identi.ca attracts a higher proportion of free software supporters and supporters of other freedoms.
So the question remains: can Identi.ca ever reach the critical mass required to "make it"? Swiftly followed by : If it does will that lead to decline of its usefulness. I hope it does reach critical mass and I hope and believe it will continue to be here. It's good -- very good -- and it has a potential to claw back some of the freedom we have lost in the web over the past few years. Hopefully it will spur others to do the same so that when the next "big thing" arrives, we'll either see a free software alternative or -- better yet -- it will be free software. So here's a final question for you as a free software supporter: do you have an account yet?
Note: Neither I nor Free Software Magazine are not affiliated with Identi.ca in any way.