Tag Archives: email

Lowering Standards

I love Diaspora. I think it’s a brilliant idea and I hope it catches on. However, I’m concerned that their chosen method of implementing their vision of decentralised social engagement may actually be too limited. My understanding is that, while users are free to create an account that can be hosted anywhere throughout the world, including on their own computers, to participate in this system they specifically need to use Diaspora. That’s all well and good if Diaspora catches on and becomes a global standard of communication, but if it doesn’t, and yet another social media platform comes along later this year that is even better in whatever respect, then we will need to join yet another social media service and again try desperately to migrate our existing friends to a strange and unfamiliar territory.

The ‘Federated Social Web‘ is a brilliant concept. However, it appears that many individual projects are attempting to create their own standards for others to adopt in order to bring such a thing into existence. The Diaspora team have been fairly quiet and I haven’t been able to determine how much they are working with larger organisations to implement an international standard and how much they are simply working to improve their own system that is just currently better than the alternatives, hoping that it will catch on.

(Obligatory link to an xkcd comic that superbly illustrates the problem: http://xkcd.com/927/)

This is a critical point we are at right now. If we mess up, we risk the groans of the general public as we try and persuade them to use yet another system a year or so down the track. If painfully migrating social media profiles and friend groups appears to be a regular, necessary part of catching up with the latest in user control and privacy solutions, it begins to seem easier to just go back to the commercial systems that have a financial interest in staying consistent and reliable. Once users begin to make the calculation of risk – “How likely is it that there will be negative consequences from me allowing a major corporate entity access to my data?” – we have already lost them.

The example I keep returning to is email. Joseph Smarr, a social Web engineer at Google has said,

“If I couldn’t e-mail people who don’t share the same domain as me, that would be pretty stupid […] But that’s exactly the way social networks work today, and that’s broken and should be fixed.” (Ariel Bleicher, The Making of Diaspora)

Why has email been so successful? I need to do some research on the history of its implementation, but it seems to me that introducing this standard may have worked early on in the early days of computing due to a combination of the following: (one) it was a simple, practical solution to the problem of communication that didn’t have major commercial interests forcing it to become a ‘walled garden’ and (two) there were less people working on the problem.

How can we ever aim to introduce something of comparable success now if there are so many competing standards? There needs to be consensus and agreement of adoption from early on, from both users and developers. Some are working hard on this. But I wonder if there’s not another approach we can take, one that increases the chances of general adoption.

A few years ago I got a text message. I couldn’t read it because it was a multimedia message and I had an old phone. I was thinking about this recently in relation to the problem of the Federated Social Web. What if, rather than introducing something new, from scratch, we instead added extra functionality to our email system?

Some have predicted that email will soon be dead (I disagree, but it entirely depends on the individual’s usage), but what if email was just . . . different? What if we added a few additional tags to the messages we send to help our email systems work out what to do with the content? Like my old mobile phone, email readers that are not ready will say, “I don’t know what to do with this”, while others will properly recognise what is to be done.

We can add app-like add-ons to our mailing system that will give us more functionality. I can add invitations to your integrated calendar, regardless of platform, just by using an improved email signal. If you don’t have calendar functionality, you will be prompted to install it. I can comment on a recent message you have made public, and decide who will have access to viewing my own words. This could all be a separate system (think Thunderbird or Outlook with much more functionality), or it could be a browser plug-in that checks for these updates so your whole social system is integrated right into, say, Firefox, based around a single email++ address rather than the myriad services you are independently logged into at any one time. This can all be stored locally, or hosted anywhere throughout the world of your choosing. You will have control over your own data and you will be able to communicate with others in a space not bombarded with advertising.

Of course, existing services like gmail will survive because people may want the security of storing their data in the cloud, or because they can’t afford or don’t have the technical expertise to manage their own email++ service. The point is, we will have a choice and, regardless of that choice, we will be able to connect with others.

Am I onto something here? Or is this simply just another proposal for a new standard that will be lost in the sea of ideas, looking so chaotic that nobody will be willing to commit to trying something new?

I guess I have a lot of work to do if I want to test the feasibility of such a proposal.