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August 27, 2009

Twitter Under Assault

A new microblogging website, Yahoo Meme, similar in style and functionality to Twitter, was soft-launched in Portuguese in May. They have now launched a Spanish version. But what is unusual is that the word “meme” was first introduced by controversial British ethologist and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene to discuss “elements of cultural ideas, symbols or practices that are transmitted from one mind to another through speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena…” That doesn’t sound a bit like Yahoo.

Just as in the 19th century, when Thomas Huxley was known as “Darwin’s bulldog” for his tenacious defence of Darwinism, Richard Dawkins has played a similar, modern-day role when talking about evolutionary principles and explaining the spread of ideas and cultural phenomena.

Analogous with the above, you may have noticed that Yahoo’s Meme closely follows the etymology of the Greek word “mimema” for “something imitated” and that instead of a sweet little bird tweeting, it has a dog – admittedly not quite the image of Huxley the bulldog, but a dog nevertheless – barking “wow” in Spanish. A dog? Don’t you think it would have been more appropriate to have used a cat that could have ruffled Twitter’s feathers a little, like Yahoo Sucatash?

According to Wiki, examples of memes are tunes, ideas and catch-phrases. But now, microblogging? Yes, Yahoo has introduced its own version in Spanish and Portuguese offering similar features to Twitter. At first glance it seems like another clone where users can populate with text posts, music, videos, photos and links to MP3 files, and with a repost rather than retweet button, but is it really an exact clone?

According to, “After using Meme [see] for a while, it doesn’t quite seem right to call it a Twitter clone. Instead, Yahoo Meme is really more of a back-to-basics microblogging service that feels a lot more like Posterous or Tumblr than Twitter.”

It must be said that releasing the beta in Spanish was a bit odd. However, according to The Summer Institute for Linguistics Ethnologue Survey (1999), the following are the top languages by population: Chinese, Spanish, then English, so to opt for Spanish would appear quite justified. But why was it cloaked in such secrecy? Do they think they are closing in on rival Twitter? Unlikely as yet, as Yahoo’s Meme does not have an API, so third-party developers are unable to write any web tools for it.

Perhaps my adherence to the Messrs Dawkins and Huxley analogy was too abstract as Yahoo’s description of its new “meme” insists: “Today, a ‘meme’ on the internet is popularly understood as a fever and became content that is played by everyone.”

Not quite what Richard Dawkins had in mind, as in explanations about his original “memes”, were that they “propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation. If a scientist heard, or read about, a good idea, he passed it on to his colleagues and students. He mentioned it in his articles and his lectures. If the idea caught on, it can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain.” Does this mean that Yahoo’s “content that is played by everyone” is the same thing as an imitation of Twitter? One wonders.

As things go, not everything is well at Twitter. Not only has Yahoo started to imitate its service but there has been yet another DDoS attack and they are said to be in litigation for patent infringement from TechRadium, a Texas-based technology company.

Not that this should be taken as a legal precedent, but it does raise some eyebrows as to how far users can legally tweet. According to TechRadium on the National Law Journal’s website: “Alerting the public about a fire, hurricane or traffic accident on Twitter is an unlawful tweet.”

So does that mean that the use of Twitter to post hurricane updates will affect Chevron and Shell or that the Los Angeles Fire Department is in trouble for posting alerts about fires and road closures?

George Borkowski, chairman of the intellectual property practice in Los Angeles, said Twitter “is likely to challenge the validity of the patents, claiming that the technology is too generic or too obvious to warrant a patent.” Borkowski also claimed that as the technology “was already out there, so there’s nothing truly novel about the patent.”

These three major assaults on Twitter must have its board a little nervous as, yet again, and for the third day running, the formatting of Twitter was all over the place on all browsers on my Mac. During my various research forays, however, I did stumble upon Yahoo_Meme on Twitter, which is a little cheeky to say the least. It only has one tweet pointing to the Portuguese beta.

However, add to that the already competing services such as Friendfeed, a real-time feed aggregator which consolidates posts from social media/networking websites and RSS/Atom feeds; One Riot, a real-time web search engine used for locating news, videos and blogs; Tumblr, a blogging platform that allows users to post text, images, video, etc, where users are able to “follow” other users; and SPNbabble, which supports the OpenID standard for a single sign-on between many different websites using a common password for each.

Besides the problems with Twitter internally, it seems by coincidence that it is being “hunted by the pack” from all these possible angles. But is it the legal connotations that have confused us in the TechRadium case about what our understanding is regarding the law and what is permissible to microblog? That question seems to be in the lap of the courts (certainly not the gods if Richard Dawkins has anything to do with it) – and alongside it, a process that could potentially take years to settle.

John Sylvester is the media director of V9 Design & Build (, a company specialising in web design in Bangkok, and who is an expert in search engine optimization and web marketing strategies.