So, if we accept that Twitter is valued higher than Identi.ca at this point in time because of its sheer number of users, one can admit that isn't necessarily better, just more popular.

Which brings us back to our question, what's the point of Identi.ca when there's Twitter?

Differences between StatusNet and Twitter

note: StatusNet is the software that powers Identi.ca. More on this later.

A simplistic answer would be a laconic “it's better cause it's free” (libre, free as in free speech), and then off you go reaching the conclusion this implies. (Such as installing it wherever you want, open and potentially more trustworthy code, etc.)
Even then, we'd need to explain a fundamental difference between Twitter and Identi.ca.

Twitter is based on a Minitel model and Identi.ca on a Internet model.
Ha. If French people already have trouble grasping the difference, all you non-French people are probably utterly lost at this point, not knowing what a Minitel is, so I'll digress and explain briefly.

To quote Wikipedia:

The Minitel is (note: yes, still *is* apparently) a Videotex online service accessible through the telephone lines, and is considered one of the world's most successful pre-World Wide Web online services. It was launched in France in 1982 by the PTT. From its early days, users could make online purchases, make train reservations, check stock prices, search the telephone directory, and chat in a similar way to that now made possible by the Internet.

What matters to us: it was totaly centralised. Dumb terminals connecting to a central node.

Benjamin Bayard held a lecture at the Libre Software Meeting a few years back called “Internet ou Minitel 2.0” (in French, it should get subtitled I guess) which has since pretty much reached cult status in the French FOSS community and to which (you guessed it) I'm referring to right now.

To get to the point, Twitter is a centralised microblogging (or status) service, set up on a single website, Twitter.com, and accessible through several means (said website, computer or smartphone client) thanks to a documented API.
This is how you can access Twitter through many different third party clients such as Tweetdeck or Gwibber for instance.

Identi.ca is a site running StatusNet, an open and interoperable microblogging platform, meaning anyone can install StatusNet on their website (like status.scoffoni.net, status.mydomain.com.au or twitarmy.com) and all these sites become part of a large network.
Well they can become part of it (federation is what we call this), like the different email servers (gmail.com, hotmail.com, free.fr, thisisabore.net) are part of a big interoperable email network. It's thanks to federation a Gmail user can send a free.fr user an email without having to worry about “which email network” the user belongs to.

When that I say “they can” federate when talking about StatusNet sites, I mean it. It's a choice, they don't have to.
A site can very well decide not to federate and avoid joining the global StatusNet network (basically, be an island not connected to the rest of the world), and can even be completely private and hidden.
This can be interesting in a fully private family setting for instance, or — more likely — for internal communications within a company, to enable inter-employee or inter-office messaging, and/or set up a transparent distributed support system.[1]

So what do we have? Twitter is a single site where the network's users (and thus, its worth) are contained within this only site, and Identi.ca (using the StatusNet platform) is a site part of a larger network offering the same basic service as Twitter but in a distributed manner, not concentrating all the network's value in a single site but in several.

To understand the point of both these approaches, a good analogy is seeing StatusNet like email and Twitter like Facebook messages.
Both offer a similar service: short public messages of mostly transient value for microblogging, “private”[2] messages of variable length for email/facebook.

If email lets you send a message to anyone without worrying about who their service provider is (@gmail.com, @perdu.com), Facebook only lets you send messages to someone else on Facebook (from thingo@facebook.com to thingymabob@facebook.com if you will, even though the only people to actually have @facebook.com are Facebook employees I believe, though this may change in the future I hear).
In the same way, Twitter only lets you send a message (public or private) to Twitter users, whereas Identi.ca lets you send these messages to any StatusNet enabled site and user (just like email).

“So what”, you'll say, “Everyone is already on Twitter… or everyone that I follow anyway.”. Well, that's quite true, it's probably the same reason why so many people these days send each other Facebook messages in lieu of emails.

What about my data?

This raises another question: what happens the day my centralised network is not fashionable anymore (or not interesting, or selling my private data, or dangerous, or just gone)? Can I take my correspondence with me a on a new network? Or can I download it to have it on my external hard drive? Or am I stuck on my old network, against my will?
Right now, it's possible to transfer one's emails from one place to another, but doing the same thing is impossible for Facebook messages (which actually can't be deleted by regular users but only by Facebook itself).
I believe Twitter to be smarter than Facebook on this issue, and it is possible that at some point one will be able to migrate from Twitter with all their data, or better yet, that Twitter opens up to other microblogging platforms, such as StatusNet.
Nevertheless, when using a service we don't have control over, we need to ask ourselves the question “what happens to our data?”. And that control is something one can have with StatusNet, as it can be installed at home (or at a Friend-who-knows-this-stuff's place).

This question of how our data is accessed, used, what it's worth and it's long-term life is a question many of us aren't asking ourselves (or don't want to?).
On the other hand, some are intently thinking about it, like the commercial companies I've talked about earlier which don't want to store internal company data on a site they don't own or control (after all, it would be possible to use Twitter to create an internal company network using mutually subscribed private accounts).

Others, like ShitMyDadSays, one of Twitter's most popular accounts have moved from twitter.com/shitmydadsays to shitmydadsay.com in order to stay in control of their data and public image.
In this case, independence is the key to creating a brand and adding value to one's own brand (Shit My Dad Says) rather than to someone else's brand (Twitter in this case). Another pro is that independence leads to control. With having your own domain, you can have more detailed statistics, as well as do some search engine optimisation. It's the reason why so many popular blogs usually end up moving from something.blogspot.com to something.com.

Ok, why not. But what's it to me?

At this point, I can feel you like the ideas but aren't exactly convinced. So I'll try to give you a few pragmatic reasons as to why I believe StatusNet to be a better solution than Twitter.

  • First of all, people are more interesting en Identi.ca (the flagship StatusNet site).
    Granted, this is highly subjective, but still. Let's just say that since Identi.ca has many FOSS geeks (but not only), I find it more interesting. Anyway you look at it though, there is a lot less “Just ate a sandwich today” type of stuff (but if you've subscribed to interesting people, that shouldn't be too much of a problem either on Twitter, and if you're following these people, you can only blame yourself).
  • Talking about crappy stuff, there is now spam on Identi.ca (not much), which ironically is proof of the network's good health. Spammers don't bother spamming unpopular websites.
  • Another example of blatant superiority, the ♺ symbol (recycle) has been mostly accepted as the “Repeat” symbol, instead of RT (ReTwit) or RD (ReDent, as in iDenti.ca). That's one less character. Eat that Twitter!
  • Furthermore, Identi.ca doesn't crash. There is no Fail Whale informing us “Twitter is over capacity”.
    Sure, Twitter is a lot more popular and visited, but it's also possible StatusNet is simply better code-wise (or it might not, for all I know, I haven't audited the StatusNet code and I couldn't if my life depended on it). Twitter is unfortunately known for having load capacity problems and the Fail Whale has been a common sight.
    Or maybe, and this is where it becomes really interesting in a long term perspective, it is simply logical and unavoidable that the burden of microblogging communications needs to be shared among different sites, and not rest on the shoulders of just one single site, the way it is pretty much the case right now. This is the same for emails which are spread over many different servers and which brings us back to the point of federation.
  • Identi.ca has started a few StatusNet instances offering more than 140 characters, the legacy limit set by Twitter because of its SMS functionality (SMS have a limit of 160 characters).
    Which gives us 280.status.net, 300.status.net, 420.status.net, etc., respectively limited to 280, 300, 420 characters[3] The whole point is that one can obviously set the limit of one's StatusNet to whatever suits one's fancy.
    Some, such as Woofer, pushed the whole thing a little far (hey, it's called Free software, you're free to mess around too) and set the limit at 1400 characters. Minimum.
  • Identi.ca, in all its openness, is also a (partial) Twitter client. Wait, whaaat?
    This means you can ask Identi.ca (and StatusNet in general) to post to Twitter what you post on Identi.ca. To do so, you just need to enter your Twitter login and password the way you would for Seesmic or Gwibber for instance. It doesn't work the other way, as Twitter is not (yet?) in a position to envision being part of a federated microblogging network. Right now they are microblogging. (This is hardly an exaggeration.)
    It's a shame anyway, as getting one's answers and RT on StatusNet would be nice. Oh well…

Addendum : actually, StatusNet is a full (two way) Twitter client. The Twitter-to-StatusNet bridge is simple turned off on identi.ca as it would use too much resources. So this means if I'm not mistaken that if you run your own StatusNet instance, you can get your @replies and messages from Twitter to your StatusNet account.

  • Another thing, StatusNet can be accessed both ways (posting or receiving updates) via XMPP, the Instant Messaging protocol designed to defeat the Forces of Evil[4]
    At one point, Twitter allowed XMPP access but I think it no longer is the case, the service being to resource-hungry from what I gather.
  • One can also post on Identi.ca/StatusNet via email. Simple, but potentially useful for some.
  • Identi.ca/StatusNet accepts OpenID. What's that?
    OpenID, as it name implies, is a service that lets people identify in a unified way across many websites, without having to create an account on each and every one of these sites. Kind of like Facebook Connect, but without a world domination agenda.
    So if you already have a Yahoo, Orange (surprising, I know), Google, Blogger, Wordpress.com or MySpace account for instance, you already have a StatusNet account. Pretty cool, eh?
    And obviously, as it's Open and all that, you can roll your own OpenID on your own server, should you feel so inclined.
  • Identi.ca/StatusNet accepts picture attachments directly, without having to host them on a third party site like TwitPic. So simple it sounds obvious when one thinks about it. You don't go to imgbay.com to upload pictures when you want to send an email, why should it be different with µblogging?

Update: Twitter now does this too. A good idea is a good idea.

  • Identi.ca/StatusNet has groups.
    Twitter lets you create a easily recognisable and searchable term by adding a # in front of it (a hashtag). You can then search this hashtag to follow a given subject, say #feedbooks to see what's happening with the ebook site. Identi.ca, on top of using hashtags, lets you create groups, recognised by a bang in front of the name/term.
    People with a common interest can then subscribe to a group (such as !linux, !food, !android, !societyforbettercurlingappreciation, etc.) and will get all messages addressed to the group directly, as if they were sent to them. Subscribing to a group is akin to subscribing to a user really.
    The interesting thing with this is that one can reach out to a lot of people with a common interest with needing to attain a huge number of followers first. Furthermore, it's a nifty way to keep tabs on given subject without having to follow a large amount of users (some which may be uninteresting the rest of the time), and without having to follow or being exposed to brand accounts if the subject is a commercial one. (Groups are usually well moderated, so spammers need not apply as they get swiftly banned).
    Another thing, one can of course address more than one group at a time, which catalyses the whole thing further. Also, a group may have several aliases, helping fit the term better in conversations, like !football and !soccer (even if mixing those two together is guaranteed to cause some anguish).
  • And finally, one last thing but a really valuable one I think: StatusNet natively contextualises conversations in a readable way.
    Compare this conversation on Identi.ca with this unending click-hell on Twitter and reach your own conclusions. (Ok, I had a better example of long Twitter conversation but it's gone, if you have a better one please leave a comment)
    Reading a (long) conversation on Twitter is either a challenge or masochistic. On the other hand, Status.net makes reading conversations, even with many threads, a pleasure.
    If only for that, Status.net is a lot more usable for any conversation that includes more than 3 messages and 2 users.

Update: Twitter has become better at this, but still isn't great.

Update: extra reasons:

  • StatusNet notices/tweets/messages don't expire. You can go back and find really old message should you want to. Apparently, Twitter messages expire and are deleted after some time (unverified).
  • Somewhat related to the previous reason, finding old tweets/dents is actually possible on Identi.ca and StatusNet. It's annoying —you have to go back through pages of notices, and if what you're looking for is really old or you tweet a lot you have to start fumbling with the variables in the URL to go directly to page 55 of your messages— but it's do-able. Compared to Twitter that just loads more messages when you reach the bottom of the page, which makes finding anything dating back excruciatingly time-consuming (scroll to the bottom of the page, wait, scroll some more, wait, repeat). So, in this case, StatusNet isn't great, it just sucks less.
  • Identi.ca has it's own URL shortener (ur1.ca) but doesn't impose on you, like Twitter now does with t.co. I find it #disturbing that Twitter now rewrites 'every' URL on twitter to use it's own URL shortener, even if the URL is already shortened by another service. Of course it makes sense to control the URL shortener, to have the usage data and see what people are visiting, what's popular and such (and therefore open an avenue of monetising) but I have problems with a “neutral” platforms[5] rewriting parts of people's messages. If they can do it to the URLs, they can do it to anything else they fancy (sorry if I sound paranoid).

Ok, let's check it out.

One could probably find more pros for StatusNet, and also quite a few for Twitter too to be fair (though up until now nothing has really struck me on the site[6]).
Still, I think I've given you a good idea of why StatusNet matters, even a Twitter dominated landscape.

I hope this makes you want to, if not switch Identi.ca completely, at least try it out.
In any case, controlling one's online image can only be a good thing, so be sure to register your nickname on I.ca before someone else does. ;)

And one last thing, an interesting article published the other day on Owni explains how “the New Twitter is a full-fledged media”. Well if Twitter is a medium, Status.net is a network.

This is the 21st century, which one do you want?

Notes

[1] For further reading on this idea, head over to this great ReadWriteWeb article.

[2] There is a good reason for those quotes, but that's for another time if you will.

[3] Yes, the last one is limited to “etc. characters”, haha.)

[4] Well at least reading Wikipedia's French page on XMPP sort of makes me want to base my life on it. XMPP is also what Google uses for their Gtalk, Facebook for their chat (ok, doesn't exactly fit the “defeating Forces of Evil” moniker), and even AOL experimented with it for AIM when they thought of giving up on their old Oscar protocol. XMPP is also known as Jabber, and yet again, it's possible to set up your own XMPP server and federate with the others (except for Facebook who refuses to play along), but I guess that's a story for another post .

[5] The whole “#wikileaks not trending episode” is still unclear in my mind and I don't know how neutral Twitter is in the first place, though it's in their interest to mostly be.

[6] A few thing in Twitter's favour, beyond it's sheer number of users: it looks better (but StatusNet 1.0 is coming up and looking good too), and it's a LOT better at recommending people to follow.