I stirred up quite a bit of noise with my post on the Twitblogs launch last week. Some commenters, as well as Twitblogs founders, were pissed off. I don’t mind, discussions are always interesting, and while some people seemed to mistake a news post for a review (which was not the case), it prompted me to dig deeper.
Among the funny things in the whole mess was TwitWall’s founder Michael E. Carluen’s comment on TechCrunch regarding Twitblogs. After having verified that it was indeed Michael who posted the comment, he agreed to do an interview with me to sort out things, as well as talk about TwitWall.
First of all, why don’t you explain to the readers what TwitWall actually does, and how it works with Twitter?
Thord, thanks for the opportunity to speak with you and your readers. When you go to the TwitWall landing page we say that ‘TwitWall is a blogging companion for Twitter and every Twitter user gets one’. Simply stated, it means anyone with a Twitter account can instantly start blogging (with formatted text, video, audio, images, personal branding) with no or very little set-up time and effort. Additionally, TwitWall leverages on the existing Twitter follower/following social network. Any blog entry posted on TwitWall immediately updates a user’s status timeline, thereby immediately aggregating traffic from the user’s social network. TwitWall is made possible by Twitter’s API toolset. TwitWall has integrated several simple yet useful Twitter-ized features such as the “one-click reTweet”, “Follow Me Button”, and the “Readers Comments as @replies”. These are all made possible by its native use of the Twitter-provided tools.
You spoke up in the TechCrunch story about Twitblogs, which we wrote about here on the Blog Herald as well. What are your relationship with the Twitblogs founders, and what really happened before the launch of the site?
I encourage your readers to read the TechCrunch article you are referring to, and of course to read my comments as well.
So just to recap, several weeks after the TwitWall was released for public use, Sam Sethi contacted me first via an anonymous @reply, then DM, then by a few emails. Like many who has seen and expressed their liking of TwitWall, I enthusiastically entertain all inquiries and dialogue as would many entrepreneurs would. But Sam approached me with an indication of being a business partner. I always keep all my options open, so I obliged by accepting a his invitation for a phone conversation. About a week after our first contact, Sam called me. Our conversation began with personal introductions at length, and ended with my vision of how TwitWall would grow as a company. I told him who I was: an 11-year Cisco Manager/Developer turned freelance developer and web entrepreneur. Then he proceeded to tell me his background in CMGI, Gateway, etc… further in the conversation he told me that he is well connected and knew many friends in the industry; he started to name specific individuals in Venture Capital investment, and editors in major trade journals. We ended the call, leaving me feeling satisfied enough that I immediately checked and added Sam on my LinkedIn.
Thinking that Sam is well connected in the tech circles and a good resource, I proceeded to check by finding some evidence of his claim by Google-ing his name. Of course, that’s when I found out his history with TechCrunch, and more importantly his documented turmoil that lead to the catastrophic end of BlogNation. For the couple of days that followed I continued to go through all the posted information about Sam on the web. In an email, I confronted Sam about what I believed was not disclosed during our initial conversation. He replied with lengthy information accounting his side, with various attachments of documents. (Frankly, I even wondered why one would even send me any such msword documents, which just looked like ms template docs). A week after I received that email, we had the 2nd conversation which just reiterated his email story. He continued to tell who Oliver Starr was and who Lee Wilkins was, as stated on many of the blog postings. We ended the conversation with no further commitments. Days lapsed and Sam continued to use TwitWall daily. Soon after Roger Konderat thru Sam’s introduction started testing TwitWall. Even then, I continued to consider Sam with a remote possibility of being a partner, but very suspicious. Meanwhile, I was increasingly curious if he had made any efforts on repairing any damage and cleaning up any debris he had caused his BlogNation employees, including Lee Wilkins, the developer of BlogNation. I contacted Oliver Starr through Starr’s blog, and we had a phone conversation. Starr said that Sam continued to avoid/refuse any contact with him and showed no effort or gesture to ‘do good’ with the people affected by BlogNation, during the course of the entire year. Furthermore, Starr mentioned that Sam is still not in good terms with TechCrunch. Starr’s account totally contradicted everything Sam had claimed during our conversations. Starr confirmed my distrust with Sam and how any relationship or connection will jeopardize the TwitWall brand in the eyes of users and the perception with reputable trade blogs. I no longer want to have to do anything with him. However, Sam continued actively go in-and-out and post on TwitWall. Then Sam’s postings abruptly stopped.
Not long after after, I noticed a new Twitter user @amolrajhans started test posting on TwitWall. Days after, new Twitter accounts with no followers started test posting/deleting their entries on TwitWall for a period of several days. Some of their test entries submitted inconsistent form field validation data which lead to exception that are logged by the TwitWall application. TwitWall has these triggers in place to catch and counter would hackers and spammers. TwitWall database and site was never compromised. However, there were clear indication that they were scrutinizing,
reverse engineering, and copyinghow TwitWall was working. Eventually, those same test Twitter accounts were used to test TwitBlogs on their development server as seen on their Twitter timelines.
The rest as they say, is TwitBlogs history.
The following clarification regarding the reverse engineering statement came from Michael on January 13, 2009:
The developers of TwitBlogs did not copy, replicate, or steal any of TwitWall’s programming code. Their developers were testing TwitWall’s functionality. TwitBlogs and TwitWall are written in different programming languages.
Michael submitted a screenshot, you can see it below.
Privacy is certainly an issue in services like this, and you recently updated your FAQ regarding this. What are the key issues when handling a user’s login credentials to a site that’s not your own, like you’re doing with the user’s Twitter accounts on TwitWall?
Majority of developers who use the Twitter API, are reputable, honest, and with the best intensions to deliver the many innovative tools we are enjoying today. Innovative tools that provide real increasing value to the Twitter experience. Based on the feedback we receive from TwitWall users, I think we have earned the trust of our users to put us in that league.
Several weeks ago, a Twitter user-ratings application (which I will not name), was released to the public. Not long after it was release, an industry journal warned its readers that the application is a phishing scam. I was curious as to what would make such reputable journal allege such strong/life-ending accusation to a Twitter application. So I went to the site but was not prepared to enter any of my credentials. Right from the landing page, the first thing I checked was the credibility of its developers. I look for simple and basic information such as the About page. Any honest developer with absolutely nothing to hide, have no history of fraud or otherwise, or with no malicious intentions, will be proud to put their names on their tools. Further on, it just got worse throughout its cryptic documentation. I personally can not confirm if that tool is legitimate or not, however, it had every indication for me that I can not trust it.
Now to answer your question, the key issue boils down to developer ethics, developer credibility, and developer integrity. As I demonstrated on my FAQ section, to enable the API to work, a user must surrender 2 critical pieces of information, userid and password. Now, a user need to surrender that information to an online entity. The question is ‘do you trust that online entity?’. If the answer is NO because the founders/developers have a history of fraud or malicious intent, then you have just answered your issue.
Lets assume for a moment the worse case scenario: A person entered their Twitter credentials to a malicious entity. The most critical pieces of data that can be taken from the Twitter database is the “email and password combination”. There are two things that can happen: (1) the malicious entity sells the email to a spammer; or (2) the malicious entity uses the same credentials to gain access to other sites sites/accounts. If the Twitter user has its Twitter credentials used exclusively for Twitter, then the risk is limited to null.
What are your advice to concerned Twitter users that would like to use TwitWall, or any similar service?
Users must have a ‘preventive plan’ and a ‘reactive plan’.
In addition to what I have said earlier about checking the background of the app developers (the ‘preventive plan’) before using the app then straying away if they are suspicious, the only thing I’ll add is for users ‘isolate any potential risk solely to their Twitter account’ (the ‘reactive plan’).
Any Twitter user should not deprive them selves from using new innovative Twitter app made by trustworthy developers. They should use it as they find the need. However, they should be always be vigilant and be ready to react quickly at the first sign of bad activity.
By ‘isolate any potential risk solely to their Twitter account’, I mean for users to set-up an email account and a password that is used only on their Twitter account and their Twitter apps. People should never use an email and password combo that is the same as the login credentials of their bank accounts. In the event that that userid and password is compromised, the user simply changes the password they have on Twitter. Any immediate change will render any (bad) apps from maliciously re-using the old credentials/data they have stored or stolen- useless.
Personally, I question the need of services like TwitWall. After all, why not just publish a traditional blog post?
Thord, on TwitWall’s About page, I told the story of how TwitWall was conceived and conceptualized. I do not consider myself as a blogger. And I do not formalize my writings good enough to be in a blog. Having a blog takes a good amount investment in time to set-up, depending on the user. By set-up I mean making the site look good as well as build traffic. For non bloggers or new bloggers, setting-up could take could take weeks, if even ever completed. TwitWall eliminates all that set-up time. If a user has already has built a presence on Twitter, with the background personal branding graphic, and an established following network, then the user is ready. Now for users who currently have existing blogs, TwitWall can be a repository of content they would like to share with their Twitter network, but does not fit the general content of their main blog.
To quote a TwitWall user Lindy Asimus as a response to a recent blog post by Jane Chin:
“I like twitwall, because it gives me a place to post odd things that I wouldn’t put on my blog, but might be a bit of fun to share with my twitterpals. As I think about it, it is a bit like the trunk (boot) of the car for me. I can stash things away in there that I might need when I go out, to use with clients or friends as the case may be. Stuff that won’t fit in the car. I also am a bit inclined to want to show people things, and in an online medium that means pictures (since my arm waving is not very helpful online) and twitwall is a great solution for that,”
I understand your reasoning, but today you can have a WordPress.com, Blogger, or even Tumblr blog setup more or less instantly. Who do you think is the average TwitWall user?
The average TwitWall User is someone who is on Twitter but who has never blogged before AND someone who has tried blogging before but was discouraged by the amount of effort its is to setup and to maintain. Here’s a TwitWall entry I have posted earlier in regards to this topic: http://twitwall.com/view/?what=040809
And here an example of a user who do not blog but uses TwitWall: http://twitwall.com/view/?who=raygale
Ray previously had a nice WordPress (music) blog before; but barely got any traffic. He did not know anything nor bother to learn anything about traffic aggregation techniques. With TwitWall, he enjoys the traffic he wanted simply from his followers. His followers easily retweets his post to get even more visitors and followers. Ray is happy.
To wrap this up, why don’t you tell us a little bit about what’s in store for TwitWall in the future?
Feature and usability wise, there will be in-context search, post-entry tagging, and enhancements on comment threading, just to name a few. There are several hidden features already available on TwitWall. We are still evaluating whether those features fit current vision for the app.
Service-wise: TwitWall users can look forward to opt-in “ad revenue sharing”
TwitWall’s commitment to its users is to work hard on simplicity and longetivity.. we want to be around for our growing users base, long after the copycat/trendy Twitter blogging apps are gone. And the key for doing that is by adding value to our users, as well as generating revenue for TwitWall, sooner rather than later.
Twitblogs Declined to Comment
I have contacted Twitblogs for an interview and sent the first batch of questions, but after some consideration they decided not to participate at this time. They have still to produce an about or a terms page on their site, so there is still no way for users to read up on the company and form an opinion as to wether they are to be trusted or not. These were things I asked about in my email to them.
Twitblogs did ask me to consider a follow-up in the coming weeks, so we’ll see what happens. Naturally, when the interview above is published, I’ll ask them for a reply again, and there’s always the option to leave comments below.
Thord Daniel Hedengren is a designer, writer, and blogger, and also the former editor of The Blog Herald. He used to be a hotshot in the gaming industry in Sweden, but sold everything and went International. Most recently he wrote a book called Smashing WordPress: Beyond the Blog, and does loads of kickass design.