The failure of online communication tools
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.