Character-length restrictions, RPC, and choosing FriendFeed over Twitter

By Uche Ogbuji
April 18, 2009 | Comments: 5

Database field-length silliness has haunted me throughout my career as an data/information architect, and I've never liked it. "VARCHAR(255)? What? Because in the lifetime of that data, which by the way you'd better be planning to exceed the lifetime of this miserable application, you're never going to need more than 255 characters?"

So here comes Twitter with it's damned 140 characters. And the crowd goes wild! Hmm. I've always said I'd never have anything to do with a service with such a stupid restriction, especially as proudly as it's brandished by Twitter. When this past weekend I decided that the micro-blogging/social aggregation space was becoming too exciting for me to ignore (I think activity at EDW09 did the trick), I ended up plumping for FriendFeed.

On a side note, you might think my other career in poetry leaves me sympathetic to terseness, and I am, but not without a reasonable flexibility. Form is the soul of poetry, but it's properly the product of generations of craftsmen, and handmaiden of languages they define our tribes. Haiku suits Japanese language and culture, and encourages lifeless pablum in English. 140 characters suits the language and culture of the cramped screen and SMS. 'Nuff said.

Anyway, I did duck my principle enough to sign up for, on which I posted just one message:

Hate the silly, stultifying, stifling, sterile, cutesy, capricious, vacuous, anti-literate one hundred and forty character limit, goddammit!

I'm not sure I'll be tempted back, but at least if shares Twitter's daft restriction, it's an open alternative for the daftness.

At first with FriendFeed I tried using the IM bot, but I was then surprised to find myself right back in twitter-scape. Apparently my posts from IM were subject to character length restrictions (I guess a bad idea is hard to put down), and to make it worse, there seemed to be no way to format embedded links nicely. I'd already heard that I should avoid the IM bot since It's a shrill nag wielding a fire hose, but I ended up ditching it for unexpected reason.

Character length restrictions are an in-your-face lexical annoyance, and there is a subtle twitterism I find analogous to an old architectural gripe of mine. Watching over Twitter users' shoulders, the service has a very RPC feel to me. It's all pin-striped request-response...request-response. Yes, there can be more than one pair engaged in that dance, but it still has the old RPC feel, probably heightened by the char msg[140] payload constraint.

FriendFeed has far more of a feel of diversity, intricacy, engagement and complexity. I think besides the richer message payloads (free of character length limits, but also supporting embedded images, video and such). Even more important might be FriendFeed's famous promiscuity with other social networking services. FriendFeed is true "life-streaming" in that the contents and conversation come from all over the place. They're even making efforts to be as promiscuous with comments, although I hope they go much further than Disqus integration, and forwarding tweet responses to Twitter.

I hope I don't sound too much like a FriendFeed cheerleader. I've really just started using it, and I don't know how well I'll use and like it in the long run, but my first impressions are very positive, and a lot of that is down to the basic architectural decisions that feel right in my strong bias towards semantic richness and open Web architecture.

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Interesting post, Uche! I always learn something new from you. Interestingly, I think my poetic streak that finally made me appreciate Twitter. Much as with haiku, or even iambic pentameter, I occasionally like playing in a strict format. And as someone who can be verbose, I like the challenge of communicating in 140 characters. Still, it's a good thing these comments don't have that kind of restriction. :-).

It turns out that there are limits on FriendFeed. Much more humane than on twitter and clones, but I do still hate hard-coded, arbitrary character length limits.

I've become a FF evangelist. I have to close my gmail and FF in order to get anything done on my website. (note I still don't have my website up and yet I'm answering a post on FF.......... :-)

@Molly, yeah, FF real-time can be a distraction, but I've found that I can offset that because it's such a useful one-stop for things I want to get off my current-attention queue, that I end up breaking even.

I'm on twitter now, though I almost exclusively post through FriendFeed (and occasionally through I joined in the run-up to a conference of particular importance to my day job, and I guess I'm around in time to witness the phenomenon of the quitterer :)

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