I’ve been using Twitter for about a year now and more recently Identi.ca. If you haven’t heard of either of these services, not to worry, because they are relatively new. If I had to give them a label, I’d call them tools for micro-blogging. If that sounds completely weird and foreign to you, then I highly recommend that you check out the video by Common Craft called, “Twitter in Plain English.

Although there are “new media” tools that have appeared in recent years, such as blogs and podcasts, we’ve had clear lines when it came to content. There are blogs and content management systems for articles, thoughts and other bits of text and then there are communication tools such as e-mail, instant messengers, IRC, etc. When writing an article, like this one, it’s primarily a broadcast medium. I write something, you read it and if I’m lucky we can talk about it via comments. With an instant messenger, like iChat, or AIM, I’m having a discussion with other people and the content evolves as the result of a conversation.

Enter Twitter
When Twitter came on the scene, there was a collective “huh?” to figure out where it fit in with what we already know about about content and communications. Since it’s only 140 characters and asks the basic question, “What are you doing?” micro-blogging seems to be a nice comfortable fit. I “tweet” a 140 character post that says “I’m eating a ham sandwich” and I’m done. However people don’t always use your tool as you define it and users began using the “@” symbol as a method of responding to other people’s tweets.

So I tweet “I’m having a ham sandwich” and one of my followers tweets back “@mashby what type of bread?” and now we have a conversation. No longer is this a primarily one-way broadcast of information, we now have a two-way discussion. Luckily, Twitter added support for the “@” and it’s become a standard within the service.

Enter Identi.ca
Identi.ca is the new kid on the block in the micro-blogging space and seems to be getting some real traction. People seem to like it because it’s open, has the potential of being distributed. So instead of one single service having to support millions of users (ala Twitter), there can be a multitude of federated Identi.ca systems all working in tangent.

It works fairly reliably and most importantly is a lot like Twitter. I like it a lot and the network of people that I follow is still growing, but I continue to use both Twitter and Identi.ca because everyone I follow on Twitter isn’t on Identi.ca yet.

Enter Steve Gilmore
One of the people I follow, Pete Prodoehl, posted the following,

“raster: so besides @stevegillmor who will leave identi.ca/laconica if it goes more than 140 chars?”

My first thought was “Huh?” and then I responded to the discussion and asking why this was even an issue. Well, it would seem that to be compatible with Twitter, SMS and the like, there are a contingent of people that feel that the 140 character limit is the cornerstone of micro-blogging. One of those people who definitely feels strongly about the subject is Steve Gillmor.

Steve has a large audience through his blogs, his former gig at ZDNet and one of the pioneer podcasts, “The Gillmor Gang” He may not be EF Hutton, but suffice to say that when Steve talk, people listen. I didn’t know that Steve was even on Identi.ca, so following raster’s link, I found his profile page and back tracked to find the conversation and make some sense of what was happening.

From what I deduced, Steve posted the following,

nice article jesse but I for one will abandon bridge if it goes in other direction. same goes for identica if > 140.

And from that post, there was a ton of chatter going back and forth about how Identica was changing and what key points were deal breakers for Steve. Most of his tweets were along the lines of “@jessestay if replies are turned off I’m gone”, and “when wull that version be released so I can plan my departure?” and a lot of back and forth over several technical issues.

Enter The Confusion
It was really difficult trying to follow the conversation. It’s one of the limitations with the “@” shortcut and it was near impossible to find any coherent thread. On top of that issue, everyone participating in the conversation is limited to 140 characters, so each reply was one short burst after another.

At one point it felt as if Steve Gilmore was on some sort of rant and I @replied as much. His response was “mashby rant?” and that’s when it hit me. It wasn’t that Steve was ranting per se, it’s just that the medium is so sparse that it quickly devolves into what appears to be a rant.

It’s hard enough to convey feeling and intentions in an e-mail. How many times has someone taken something you’ve written the wrong way? E-mail provides us plenty of room to write and get the message that we’re trying to convey, now truncate that to 140 characters and it’s even more difficult. That was the case with Steve Gilmore’s comments on the Identi.ca changes. He was posting individual points, but from the receiving end it came across as an angry rant.

So this begs the question, is microblogging really a conversation medium, or is it nothing more than shouts across a crowded room?