Yesterday, Evan released version 0.7.0 of the Laconica microblogging software. He also pushed it out as an update to the growing Identica. There have been some new features added to the site, and I'll be covering them here.
First, however, last night, Levi and I were chatting away in #utah on Freenode about the protocols Twitter and Identica use. Levi was frustrated that Twitter has built a crappy protocol that really doesn't do much than make noise. If you want to get any signal out of the noise, such as follow specific hashtags, you have to use a separate protocol on top of Twitter, such as RSS. I agreed that the implementation is severely flawed. The ONLY way to follow hashtags is through RSS. There is no mechanism built into the Twitter protocol to do so. As such, it could be said that hashtags themselves are a design flaw in microblogging. Furthermore, you will only see the hashtags of those you are following, not those you aren't. This probably makes sense, in that you don't want a flood of text from people you don't know, especially when hashtags are not "opt-in". However, it shows another flaw in the design- you'll never see a broader discussion about that topic. Lastly, if you're using the web interface, and not a Twitter "client" of some sort, there is no way other than RSS to see all the posts for that hashtag, despite who you're following. As it sits, Twitter is broken. But we knew that already. After all, they ditched their Jabber bot, and they've had more birds and whales than tweets.
Enter a solution from the Laconica microblogging software. Yesterday, with the new release of the software, a new feature has been announced that's been all the buzz- groups. Groups are like hashtags. They represent a topic at hand that someone wants to discuss. However, they address the failing problem with hashtags- using the protocol to follow discussion. First off, groups are opt-in, which means you find a group, then click the link to join the group. Then, when you want to post something to the group, you precede it with the bang. Say I joined the group Ubuntu, and I wanted to post a message about a new installation, I could do something similar to 'installing !ubuntu now'. The great thing about groups, is even if people aren't directly subscribed to my posts, they will see my posts directed to the group, and vice versa. I may only be subscribed to five people on the site, but if I belong to the Ubuntu group, then any message with '!ubuntu' in it, will get delivered to me. No additional protocol to keep track of. Perfect, seamless integration. Now, groups still do have RSS feeds, so you can follow the posts to the group in your RSS reader if you wish, but it's not necessary. One thing to point out, however, is that if you're not a member of a group, then you can post your message to the group, even if you precede it with the bang symbol. You must be subscribed to the group.
Anyone can create a group (that hasn't already been created) and anyone can join a group. At the moment, there are no private groups or invite-only groups, although I'm sure we'll see something like this in the future. Also, creating a group doesn't make you some account god. Instead, you can change the picture for the group, or the group details, but that's it. No banning users from the group, or kicking existing users out (again, I'm sure this functionality will be added later). However, when you create or join a group, you'll notice that there are some hiccups right now. As it sits, only JPEGs will be rendered for the group logo, and they're extremely pixelated. It seems that the software is resizing the image to really small, probably to save space, then zooming the small image as necessary for the group logo, which causes the pixelation.
Looking at the groups page, what I find interesting is the groups with the most members and the groups with the most posts. It's fairly easy to see that Identica is a service for geeks. Or, at least geeks are creating groups. No mention of a group 'gardening' or 'parishilton' or 'nascar'. Instead, we see things like 'ubuntu', 'xmpp' and 'archlinux'. Probably the GPL license of the Laconica microblogging software that is drawing the geek crowd. However, at nearly 40,000 users strong, Identica is becoming an alternative player. People like Robert Scoble and Lawrence Lessig are on Identica, and other big names. With the Laconica team innovating, such as groups replacing hashtags, I bet the draw will only continue to increase.
Of course, the best part of the Laconica software is federation. Want to run your own microblogging site, yet follow others under their own domain? No ploblem! Just like XMPP, Laconica can federate across domains, making it completely decentralized.