Friday, January 09, 2009

Signal and noise - Separation of concerns

I keep seeing the same meta-problems over and over again. Some new tool comes along to make it easier to communicate, and it takes off. Then people complain that it makes it too easy to communicate... and it loses steam.

We've been through this cycle so many times, and history always rhymes. This particular portion of the rhyme of time involves Doc Searls, Twitter and Facebook, because he mentioned all of them in one place.

History - Email

Email made asynchronous messaging possible for most of us. It became a de-facto component of any "internet access" package. There were some improvements along the way, but the basic protocol hasn't really changed since the switch from ! to @ email addressing.

Because the environment has changed, the lack of authentication of the sender of a message has turned it into the spam pit we all learn to accept as the status quo. If you take spam out of the picture, email is a great way to get data from sender to reciever. It's a deliberate 1:1 transmission means, which means the sender implicitly signals the intent for someone to read the message.

Mailing lists preserve the intent because the are opt-in and dedicated to a certain topic. Social conventions arose to keep the clutter down, and keep things on-message.

History - Usenet

Usenet is a distributed protocol for hosting discussions on an internet-wide basis. Before the spam got out of control, it was a useful way to get information on a wide variety of topics. Once again, the nature of the environment changed, and the lack of authentication made it into an even bigger spam pit than email is today.

History - IRC / Instant Messaging

IRC - Internet Relay Chat made it possible for real-time group discussions across the internet. The spam factor drove some innovation amoung closed systems, which requried some form of authentication, spawning a wide range in so called Instant Message (IM) offerings amoung the various walled garden services such as AOL and Prodigy.

The VHS/Betamax style battles to capture customers lead to a lack of a single service arising to unify things, though with clients like Trillian it was possible. The need to install a specialized client was a big hindrance to adoption as well.

History - Twitter

While there have been other web-based messaging platforms in the past, the rise of twitter as a way to broadcast messages has been quite solid, in spite of some growing pains. The ability to see all public "tweets" and the additional innovation of third party tools such as search has kept it growing.

The fact that there is a central authority to register users and enforce some rules does help keep the signal to noise ratio in check. Like instant messaging, you chose who you listen to, but in addition your audience choose you as well.

The problem faced by twitter is one of the loss of Intent. When you send a message to twitter, it goes out to the entire audience, there is no way to segment your audience by intent, which forces you to artificially limit yourself to the one common interest of your audience if you don't want to lose them. Otherwise you have to play a very delicate (and unneccessary from my point of view) balancing act to try to keep everyone happy.

History - Facebook

Facebook gives us an easy to use place for putting sharing our stuff with others. Because of the lack of intent, there is becoming a friction between work and home, and people really like the tool because of ease of use, so they don't want to lose it to the lessor choice. The tension of multiple audiences is becoming easier to see with the rise in user population, and the increasing adoption of social networking platforms by businesses who have gotten a clue.

History - Internet Access and the soda straw

I have at least 320 Gigabytes of stuff I'd like to share. I'm sure that anyone who has had a digital means of capture of images or sound could easily generate a gigabyte or two per month without breathing hard. The entrenched providers have built their networks on an assymetric model that prohibits running servers, which is the only reasonable strategy for making this much content available on a discretionary basis.

Prohibition of servers at home actually then forces us to chose carefully the content we wish to share, and to send it to a silo where we begin to lose control and rights over our own stuff. We're forced to live our online life breathing digitally through a soda straw.

The Present

There are many tools to allow you to share content, but there is something lacking in each of them. As we see the ones that allow specifying audience don't seem to have the necessary authentication or regulation of the senders. The ones that work well for social networking don't allow for the separation of concerns. There is an additional factor of the difficulties of moving content to, from, and between these platforms and silos. The fact that this all has to be done through a limited bandwidth connection certainly doesn't help much.

Defining The Future - Social Aspects

If we are to have the future we desire, we must articulate the vision clearly and build consensus to push towards it as a goal. There are no obvious technical limitations that prohibit a future where we can share all the content we care to create. We do need to take care to make sure the signal to noise ratio remains as high as possible for those we share with. I believe that the simple act of being polite and mindful of our audience is going to carry the highest social value in the future, as it currently does with our limited tools.

Defining The Future - Technology

The future is all about metadata. We don't have enough of it right now. Flickr helps by allowing tags, and this is a very powerful tool. We need to build tool sets that allow tagging to become a socially shared tool as well. It would be valuable to allow someone else to review my photos, and decide which are keepers, or to tag them for specific keywords, possible venues, etc.

HTML needs to be expanded to allow for the markup and tagging of existing content by other parties. Of course, there needs to be some authetication built into it, to prevent grafitti and other forms of spamming from taking over. This would allow someone to highlight the "geek speak" parts of this very blog post, for example. It would also allow someone to highlight the part they found insightful, or insulting, or whatever.

Offline forms of sharing should be sought out to allow familes and others to route around the poorly designed "broadband" we've all been brought up to think was fast.

Twitter, Facebook, and others should allow for some form of tagging, like flickr, to make it possible to subscribe to only certain content from other users.

In Summary

The limitations of Twitter and Facebook that Doc Searls complains about are those of metadata and intent. They are not unsolvable, and they can be addressed. It remains to be seen if that happens via inclusion of new features, or migration to even newer networks that offer the required features.

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