According to a CNN (s twx) 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 (s goog), 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.