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Twitter has followers who want to lead

March 25, 2009|DAVID SARNO

Leo Laporte became a Twitter quitter last year.

The host of one of Silicon Valley's most popular podcasts was none too excited that of all the names in the world, the burgeoning message service had picked one that was piercingly close to home. The online broadcasting network that Laporte owns and runs out of his house in Petaluma is called TwiT.tv, after the company's flagship show, "This Week in Tech."

The rise of Twitter has long been a favorite topic of conversation on TWiT, and with an audience of around 150,000, Laporte found himself in a strange pickle: The more he talked about Twitter on his show, the more followers he accrued -- and the more publicity he gave his brand rival.

"I thought, jeez, I'm building value in this company that is ultimately vying for my trademark," he said recently via phone. "So I left."

But in spite of his absence, Laporte still became the most-followed user on the service, beating out front-runners like then-Sen. Barack Obama for the top spot, with more than 30,000 followers. Walking away from a megaphone that big just didn't seem like good business. So he came back.

"They kind of have you," said Laporte, who now has more than 100,000 followers on the service. "The same way that Facebook has you: because you have to go where the community is."

Still, being in thrall to Twitter hasn't stopped Laporte from joining a conversation that's taking hold on the service's fringes. As this group of Web subversives sees it, the once-tiny Twitter has grown like a magic beanstalk into a full-fledged communications medium -- taking its place alongside Web pages, e-mail and maybe even television. And though the 30-person, San Francisco start-up is not exactly General Electric, these digital trust-busters believe the same rules apply: One company shouldn't own and control an entire medium -- even if it invented it.

"It's a very dangerous network because it's all centralized," said Dave Winer, a Berkeley-based entrepreneur and Web innovator, on a recent podcast posted to his Scripting News blog, "not only on a technological level, where it goes through one set of servers -- but it also goes through one set of business interests that's anything but transparent."

Danger may sound a bit overzealous for a Web service that barely existed two years ago, but for a media landscape in the middle of a profound shift, two years can be the span between eras.

Twitter is becoming a major source for news, commerce and free expression and, as with a free press itself, defenders don't want a few profit-motivated individuals making all the decisions about how it should evolve.

Like Facebook and YouTube before it, Twitter is now transitioning from a freely available, much-loved Web service to a well-funded business venture looking to cash in on the audience and cachet it built in its freewheeling early days.

A few weeks ago, Twitter created a page of several dozen suggested users to help newcomers decide whom to follow. If you weren't sure how to proceed, you can follow CNN, Lance Armstrong or Britney Spears. Being recommended by Twitter, it was quickly discovered, translated into tens or hundreds of thousands of new followers, and anointed accounts have since shot to the top of the Twitter hierarchy. The giant, instant audiences Twitter bestowed on these select users are thought to be so valuable that Web businessman Jason Calacanis offered Twitter $250,000 for a two-year ride on the list.

As visibility and influence gets funneled upward to the companies, celebrities and politicians that already have plenty of both, Twitter risks inviting a comparison to the overinflated economy -- it's creating a bubble at the top, and potentially alienating regular users who labored to build their audiences over months or years.

Well-known tech figures like Laporte and Winer don't exactly represent the voiceless online rabble, but they're also the types of guys you don't want to lead a charge against you.

Winer recently wrote a post called "Breaking Out of Twitter," where he said of the service's management, "we need to get that power out of their hands." Laporte told me, "I'm more interested in seeing if we can go beyond Twitter -- a more open system would be a better system."

Both critics have installed their own smaller, open-source micro-messaging systems outside of Twitter's domain. Laporte calls his the Twit Army.

The software they're using was developed by Evan Prodromou, a developer in Montreal. Prodromou is the force behind Laconica -- an open-source, Twitter-like system that anyone can install; hundreds of administrators already have, creating a dispersed, decentralized network of Twitter clones that can all talk to one another.

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