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Be your own twitter: laconi.ca microblog platform and identi.ca

The laconi.ca microblogging platform is as open as you could hope for. That elusive trinity: open source; open standards; and open content.

The project is led by Evan Prodromou (evan) of Wikitravel fame, whose company just launched identi.ca, “an open microblogging service” built with Laconica. These are fast gaining feature-parity with twitter; yesterday we got a “replies” tab; this morning I woke to find “search” working. Plenty of interesting people have  signed up and grabbed usernames. Twitter-compatible tools are emerging.

At first glance this might look the typical “clone” efforts that spring up whenever a much-loved site gets overloaded. Identi.ca‘s success is certainly related to the scaling problems at Twitter, but it’s much more important than that. Looking at FriendFeed comments about identi.ca has sometimes been a little depressing: there is too often a jaded, selfish “why is this worth my attention?” tone. But they’re missing something. Dave Winer wrote a “how to think about identi.ca” post recently; worth a read, as is the ever-wise Edd Dumbill on “Why identica is important”. This project deserves your attention if you value Twitter, or if you care about a standards-based decentralised Social Web.

I have a testbed copy at foaf2foaf.org (I’ve been collecting notes for Laconica installations at Dreamhost). It is also federated. While there is support for XMPP (an IM interface) the main federation mechanism is based on HTTP and OAuth, using the openmicroblogging.org spec. Laconica supports OpenID so you can play  without needing another password. But the OpenID usage can also help with federation and account matching across the network.

Laconica (and the identi.ca install) support FOAF by providing a FOAF files  – data that is being indexed already by Google’s Social Graph API. For eg. see  my identi.ca FOAF; and a search of Google SGAPI for my identi.ca account.  It is in PHP (and MySQL) – hacking on FOAF consumer code using ARC is a natural step. If anyone is interested to help with that, talk to me and to Evan (and to Bengee of course).

Laconica encourages everyone to apply a clear license to their microblogged posts; the initial install suggests Creative Commons Attribution 3. Other options will be added. This is important, both to ensure the integrity of this a system where posts can be reliably federated, but also as part of a general drift towards the opening up of the Web.

Imagine you are, for example, a major media content owner, with tens of thousands of audio, video, or document files. You want to know what the public are saying about your stuff, in all these scattered distributed Social Web systems. That is just about do-able. But then you want to know what you can do with these aggregated comments. Can you include them on your site? Horrible problem! Who really wrote them? What rights have they granted? The OpenID/CC combination suggests a path by which comments can find their way back to the original publishers of the content being discussed.

I’ve been posting a fair bit lately about OAuth, which I suspect may be even more important than OpenID over the next couple of years. OAuth is an under-appreciated technology piece, so I’m glad to see it being used nicely for Laconica. Laconica installations allow you to subscribe to an account from another account elsewhere in the Web. For example, if I am logged into my testbed site at http://foaf2foaf.org/bandri and I visit http://identi.ca/libby, I’ll get an option to (remote-)subscribe. There are bugs and usability problems as of right now, but the approach makes sense: by providing the url of the remote account, identi.ca can bounce me over to foaf2foaf which will ask “really want to subscribe to Libby? [y/n]“, setting up API permissioning for cross-site data flow behind the scenes.

I doubt that the openmicroblogging spec will be the last word on this kind of syndication / federation. But it is progress, practical and moving fast. A close cousin of this design is the work from the SMOB (Semantic Microblogging) project, who use SIOC, FOAF and HTTP. I’m happy to see a conversation already underway about bridging those systems.

Do please consider supporting the project. And a special note for Semantic Web (over)enthusiasts: don’t just show up and demand new RDF-related features. Either build them yourself or dive into the project as a whole. Have a nose around the buglist. There is of course plenty of scope for semwebbery, but I suggest a first priority ought to be to help the project reach a point of general usability and adoption. I’ve nothing against Twitter just as I had nothing at all against Six Apart and Movable Type, back before they opensourced. On the contrary, Movable Type was a great product from great people. But the freedoms and flexibility that opensource buys us are hard to ignore. And so I use WordPress now, having migrated like countless others. My suspicion is we’re at a “WordPress/MovableType” moment here with Identica/Laconica and Twitter, and that of all the platforms jostling to be the “new twitter”, this one is most deserving of success. With opensource, Laconica can be the new Laconica…

You can follow me here identi.ca/danbri

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