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Summary:

UberMedia is said to be working on developing a social network that would compete with Twitter. But while the company is arguably the most well-funded of all those who have tried, and there would be benefits to having multiple players, the odds are stacked against it.

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According to a CNN report, startup UberMedia is working on building a network that could potentially compete with Twitter. We’ve written in the past about how UberMedia has been on a collision course with the social network, in part because of its attempts to compete with Twitter. But could a Twitter competitor really fly? UberMedia is arguably the most well-funded of all those who’ve tried to build such a thing (apart from Google, of course), and there would be some clear benefits to having multiple players. But the odds are stacked against UberMedia, just as they are stacked against anyone who wants to take on an incumbent social network.

The CNN report, which is reportedly based on “several sources who have been briefed on the plans,” says UberMedia is proposing a network which would appeal to more users by solving some of the problems associated with Twitter — such as the difficulty new users face in learning the service and the 140-character limit.

Focusing on Twitter’s lack of immediate appeal to new users isn’t a new idea. Twitter executives like former CEO Evan Williams and Co-founder Jack Dorsey have admitted the “on-boarding” process of educating new users takes too long, and the value of the network is not immediately obvious. The company has been working on ways of improving that by targeting users’ interests more directly, and helping them discover people who are worth following.

The idea that 140-character messages are a flaw in Twitter, however, is one sign UberMedia’s alternative network might be on the wrong track (if CNN is correct about that being a focus). Some apps have tried to expand the length, including Tweetdeck, which posts longer updates to its own auto-created webpages for users through a service called Deck.ly, and is in acquisition talks with UberMedia. The shortness of Twitter messages might seem like a limitation, but in reality, the 140-character limit is probably one of the key factors in Twitter’s success.

Not only was that limit similar to the limit on cellphone text messages, which made it seem more familiar (particularly to younger and mobile users), but it also forced users to post short thoughts and comments — and links — rather than long, blog-style posts. Removing that limit would arguably do more to ruin one of the strengths of the network than it would to improve it.

That said, however, the idea of having a Twitter competitor has many benefits, which we have written about before. Among other things, it would help lessen the dangers of relying on a single proprietary network for what has become an increasingly important way of distributing information: one so important it has played a central role in revolutions in the Middle East and elsewhere. Although proposals for an alternate network or a more open standard started when Twitter was experiencing large amounts of downtime, there would also be obvious benefits to having an alternative when governments start trying to compel networks like Twitter to turn over information on their users.

There have been a number of attempts to create alternatives to Twitter, or more open networks that inter-operate with it — including Status.net. That service, which is open source, allows anyone to run their own micro-blogging software and publish content both to Twitter and other networks. The biggest problem, one that has also plagued proposed alternatives to Facebook like Diaspora, is the gravitational force known as the “network effect.” Once users have become devoted to a specific service, it is very difficult to get them to switch, even when the network has flaws — something that became obvious when Twitter continued to grow rapidly in 2009, even as it was suffering from repeated outages and downtime.

Can Bill Gross beat these odds with whatever he is trying to build at UberMedia? He certainly has the resources to take a shot at it — with $17.5 million in funding from backers such as Accel Partners and Index Ventures — although we know from past events that Twitter isn’t going to make it easy for him, and neither is the network effect. In the long run, Gross is fighting an uphill battle that may have a worthwhile goal, but could ultimately be impossible to win.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Rosaura Ochoa

  1. I don’t need another Twitter. I need a Facebook replacement that can delicately handle/parse my Bible thumping and Tea party “friends”. I don’t need to unfriend or block these nice people, but I’d like to go back to the days when I was blissfully unaware that a few friends/family believed the world was created in a couple days and God buried dinosaur bones to test our faith.

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  2. Absolutely. We don’t need another twitter. Probably, someone can come up in the space left by MySpace. Music and social media integration is one thing where I still see a possibility for a start up! Twitter competition, I woudn’t say a no go, but very very very tough to sustain!!

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  3. THe question should be – does the world need Twitter. I would say no – to twitter and all its clones. :)

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  4. heck yes, for another twitter. and more like sina weibo, and more reliable, with decent search, and able to extract full history …

    twitter, the company, STILL feels like a bunch of stoners who lucked into a good product, and can’t handle its possibilities

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  5. Nobody likes clones. Twitter is not Facebook’s clone, nor Facebook is of twitter. But both are social communication tools! Anybody who tried to replicate success have failed miserably. All those who have tried to innovate and invent new ways of communication have succeeded. There are still many flaws in both twitter and facebook. I will always welcome anybody who want to try to “do it the right way”. Good luck UberCool… :)

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  6. To argue that Twitter has network effects is wrong, in this new world of APIs and open data etc – it must be possible conceptually to eliminate these network effects on a new network.

    Also, you need to take a critical look at how big twitter really is. Some claim that Twitter really has only under 60 Million Users, which means the game is not over – http://statspotting.com/?p=422.

    It all depends on what the new service offers which is different from Twitter. My guess is, piggybacking on some other platform (e.g. some device) could give the new service a good launchpad.

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  7. I think all the major clients for Twitter should collaborate to implement status.net and identi.ca into their clients, and help make the transition easy for people from Twitter to status.net profiles, since they’d be using those popular clients. This would be a backup plan for them in case Twitter pull the rug under them for good. Plus, I think we need decentralized services, especially for things like revolutions. If only we coul have a decentralized Facebook as well.

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  8. Honestly, do we need another ‘exact’ twitter clone? No. However, competition is always a good thing. It breeds innovation, which in the end always benefits us, consumers.

    In this particular case, it benefits the developer ecosystem as well, due to twitters recent heavy handed stance toward their desire to rule the ecosystem. I know the arguments as to why they took the stance they have are more complex than I make it but, ultimately, if developers see opportunities, it could certainly help the new ‘twitter’ the way the ecosystem helped current twitter. In the end, choice is never a bad thing.

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  9. The Qaiku microblogging service does this pretty well: an initial post is limited to 140 chars, but replies can be of any length. And there you can include pictures and video right into the posts, no external service needed.

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  10. I think any service that uses the microblogging format is going to be considered a “twitter clone”. But there’s a lot more that can be done with that format, (e.g. poundwire), that will deliver social news more efficiently and more effectively.

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