Home » Blog

The failure of online communication tools

28 December 2008 12 Comments

Coming from me that may sound a strange title, but while I am very positive about the potential for online tools to improve the way we communicate science, I sometimes despair about the irritating little barriers that constantly prevent us from starting to achieve what we might. Today I had a good example of that.

Currently I am in Sydney, a city where many old, and some not so old friends live. I am a bit rushed for time so decided the best way to catch up was to propose a date, send out a broadcast message to all the relevant people, and then sort out the minor details of where and exactly when to meet up. Easy right? After all tools like Friendfeed and Facebook provide good broadcast functionality. Except of course, as many of these are old friends, they are not on Friendfeed. But that’s ok because I’ve many of them are on Facebook. Except some of them are not old friends, or are not people I have yet found on Facebook, but that’s ok, they’re on Friendfeed, so I just need to send two messages. Oh, except there are some people who aren’t on Facebook, so I need to email them – but they don’t all know each other so I shouldn’t send their email addresses in the clear. That’s ok, that’s what bcc is for. Oh, but this email address is about five years old…is it still correct?

So – I end up sending three independent messages, one via Friendfeed, three via Facebook (one status message, one direct message, and another direct message to the person I found but hadn’t yet friended), and one via email (some unfortunate people got all three – and it turns out they have to do their laundry anyway). It almost came down to trying some old mobile numbers to send out text. Twitter (which I don’t use very much) wouldn’t have helped either. But that’s not so bad – only took me ten minutes to cut and paste and get them all sent. They seem to be getting through to people as well which is good.

Except now I am getting back responses via email, via Facebook, and at some point via Friendfeed as well no doubt. All of which are inaccessible to me when I am out and about anyway because I’m not prepared to pay the swinging rates for roaming data.

What should happen is that I have a collection of people, I choose the send them a message, whether private or broadcast, and they choose how to receive that message and how to prioritise it. They then reply to me, and I see all their responses nicely aggregated because they are all related to my one query. As this query was time dependent I would have prioritised responses so perhaps I would receive them by text or direct to my mobile in some other form. The point is that each person controls the way they receive information from different streams and is in control of the way they deal with it.

It’s not just filter failure which is creating the impression of the information overload. The tools we are using, their incompatibility, and the cost of transferring items from one stream to another are also contributing to the problem. The web is designed to be sticky because the web is designed to sell advertising. Every me-too site wants to hold its users and communities, my community, my specific community that I want to meet up with for a drink, is split across multiple services. I don’t have a solution to the business model problem – I just want services with proper APIs that let other people build services that get all of my streams into one place. I hope someone comes up with a business model – but I also have to accept that maybe I just need to pay for it.


  • You may try a group/event scheduling tool, e.g. whenisgood.net / http://www.diarised.com / http://www.presdo.com / doodle.com

  • You may try a group/event scheduling tool, e.g. whenisgood.net / http://www.diarised.com / http://www.presdo.com / doodle.com

  • Anna

    I have some awareness that the Australian Communications Authority is/was trying to address this sort of personalised reception through single input – ie one phone number relating to email/phone/video/txt etc with the user choosing how they receive the information. I’m not sure what the current status of the policy recommendations is, but could put you in touch with the person who made them if you are interested …

  • Anna

    I have some awareness that the Australian Communications Authority is/was trying to address this sort of personalised reception through single input – ie one phone number relating to email/phone/video/txt etc with the user choosing how they receive the information. I’m not sure what the current status of the policy recommendations is, but could put you in touch with the person who made them if you are interested …

  • Paolo, yes, there are lots of cool tools about for this kind of thing. But the combination of timeframe and again website stickiness would probably have caused problems. Ideally the incoming message stream could easily be parsed into a calendar and we would all publish free/busy information at whatever level of detail we were comfortable with.

  • Paolo, yes, there are lots of cool tools about for this kind of thing. But the combination of timeframe and again website stickiness would probably have caused problems. Ideally the incoming message stream could easily be parsed into a calendar and we would all publish free/busy information at whatever level of detail we were comfortable with.

  • I agree. We are spending way to much time browsing information we receive via feeds, e-mails, etc, and no one is on the same networks or tools. Would be great to have an API to hide all those details and that could centralized all the ins and outs in a single organized place for us, and that would appropriately communicate and keep track of others.

  • I agree. We are spending way to much time browsing information we receive via feeds, e-mails, etc, and no one is on the same networks or tools. Would be great to have an API to hide all those details and that could centralized all the ins and outs in a single organized place for us, and that would appropriately communicate and keep track of others.

  • Hi Francois, absolutely. The way I think about this often is that the system is inadequate when the human has to act as the API layer. If this is happening then there is room for lots of improvement. Ultimately we have to do the job of integrating the information for our own consumption – but I don’t think we ought to be doing the job of aggregating the items. This also has the advantage of creating a new point for filtering as well.

  • Hi Francois, absolutely. The way I think about this often is that the system is inadequate when the human has to act as the API layer. If this is happening then there is room for lots of improvement. Ultimately we have to do the job of integrating the information for our own consumption – but I don’t think we ought to be doing the job of aggregating the items. This also has the advantage of creating a new point for filtering as well.

  • Anna

    You’ve just reminded me that I need to sort out friend feed.

  • Anna

    You’ve just reminded me that I need to sort out friend feed.