Since late last week, there's been an echo-chamber, mini-buzz around a new "micro-blogging" service called Identica. Usually, I'm quite weary of such buzz. For instance, you won't see me write about a service that starts with the letter "P" and ends with "urk" because there's no "there there." Even though I used BrightKite for a few weeks, I never wrote about it for the same reason. Cool, but not cool enough.
And, quite frankly, I'm not writing about Identica as a "Twitter killer" because I don't think the "there" is with Identica itself.
Instead, I believe the "there" with Identica is the open source platform Identica runs on, called Laconica.
Laconica is, on the surface, "Twitter in a box" software. With the exception of SMS integration (coming soon), it has all the same bells and whistles, and was (supposedly) built with many of the lessons learned from Twitter's well documented problems, which is why folks are hoping it can be a bit more stable.
The real significance of Laconica, though, is its interoperability other installations of itself. Since it's an open source platform, this allows people to now create a federated network of "micro-blogging" services.
Return of the BBS
If you're my age or older, you remember the BBS'.
The point about BBS' I want to make is that while they came in all shapes and sizes, and while a few were very general, most were very niche; and in their niche, they were also very often very locally-oriented (kids: there used to be something called "long distance" phone calls!).
Nonetheless, and no matter how niche, FidoNET (first software and then a protocol) came along and allowed individual BBS' to connect with one another, effectively federating themselves.
So, what does this have to do with Laconica?
If you think Twitter-style communication is a new form of communication (I do); and if you think that it's a form of communication which will stick around for a while (I do); and you think distributed, open systems are generally more durable than even the most API friendly centralized services (I do); then, your mind can quickly become attracted to the implications of a platform like Laconica.
If Identica continues to attract people to its service and developers (also people ;) to Laconica, I imagine a world where we go back to a federated system of services, all offering Twitter-style messaging.
Also, I imagine these federated communities to have niche and especially locally-flavored tints. Last week, for instance, I bought the domain "yorking.net," imagining a New York-oriented micro-blogging service. With a service like "Yorking," a micro-blogging outfit could automatically tie-in niche local services, information, partnerships with other content providers, etc -- a lot of stuff Twitter itself can't really do from a global, centralized position.
Now, before I continue, you're probably wondering what kind of stuff you could do with a federated micro-blogging service vs building on top of Twitter (who gets major points for great APIs). Even putting aside reliability and control issues (as big as they are), think about the freedom to integrate core services people have. Heck, they could rearchitect the entire stack, as long as they abided by the same protocols as the other Laconica providers.
There are also business model implications. Last week, I wrote that Twitter's best business model would be implementing a mobile P2P payments system. However, with a distributed system, there's no long a "single best" model, and instead there's room for business model diversity. Like with BBS', many Laconica providers would remain free; however, some would have subscription fees, some would be ad supported, some would be private, etc, etc.
Who's going to be the WELL of micro-blogging communities?
Who's Poised to Win
Gawker, Gothamist, ApartmentTherapy, Going.com, Thrillist and -- more than anyone else -- Twitter.
There are two type of organizations poised to win in a distributed micro-blogging world: folks with an existing niche membership/audience who would derive use from the new form of communication; and, folks with who already have people using the new form of communication, like Jaiku, Dodgeball, BrightKite, and -- most especially -- Twitter.
Who knows whether Identica or Laconica will be around a year from now? One thing I do know is that the discussion surrounding a "distributed Twitter" isn't going anywhere. If Laconica fails, something else will pop up with more or less the same compelling story. I guess the final question is, as with every eminent movement, when will enough people actually get on board to make something have legs?
UPDATE 1: Please also read my friend Eran Hammer-Lahav's excellent 3-part series of posts called Scaling a Microblogging Service. He not only explains Twitter's scaling problems well, he also tries to debunk (from an engineering perspective, rather than my "web trend" perspective) how beneficial a federated system would be.