Ending the Tyranny of the Telephone

How do we deal socially with the new technology around us? How do we come up with new norms, wrestle with the loss of privacy, deal with the way technology seems to force us to change the way we live, work and communicate,?

It’s not a new question, but I feel we need a new answer. We tend to focus on the intrusiveness of new technologies, and agonise over how they’re changing society, while failing to notice that the old technologies were just as intrusive. In fact, I’d argue that with each advance of communication technologies, they get less intrusive rather than more.  Our problem is that we have memories the size of hamster droppings.

Imagine a device that dominates every desk, every home, is on every street corner and train platform. Where we are so conditioned to answer its call we get upset when it’s left to ring. Even when we’re eating, praying, watching TV, asleep. Where we are expected to identify who we are, where we are to a disembodied voice at the other end, to run off searching for someone at its behest, jot down messages on its behalf.

Yes, of course I’m talking about the telephone. An awful device that intruded upon our conversations, our reverie, our concentration, our world. What is remarkable, then, is not how much we’ve submitted to technology but the speed with which we’ve embraced a different technology that better suits our world.

As quickly as technology allowed it, we have started ditching the idea of getting each other’s attention through voice. First we adopted the cellphone, but when users figured out they could use it to send messages by text or SMS instead, the telephone as a predominantly voice-driven device was doomed. It’s not that we don’t want to talk to people; it’s just that we want to ensure that the time and place are  convenient for both of us.,

The truth is that the telephone imposed its tyranny on us and dominated our lives so much that we still can’t let go of the idea. We still call our mobile devices ‘phones’ even when that’s no longer what they’re primarily designed to do. (I have a mobile phone that is as big as a croissant; this was not something that the ubiquitous ads touting its glories will ever show being held up  to the ear.)

Now, in 2012 most mobile phones are not used as phones primarily — if at all. Australians, for example, are making 12.5% fewer phone calls than five years ago. People have been giving up having a landline phone: South Africa’s Telkom, for example, has lost more than a quarter of its fixed line customers since 2000.  We have thrown off the shackles of a 140 year tyranny remarkably quickly, realising just how intrusive the telephone was.

Yes, we’ve replaced it with technology that can be antisocial. We download a lot of data over our device, and much of that data is personal, for our eyes only, or gaming with others not present. We ignore those we’re with, preferring the absorption of the small screen to the social complexity around us. But we’ll figure this out. First, we had to deal with the tyrant. Nowadays, in this mobile spring, look around you differently: listen for the absence of ringing phones. For once we have the technology — SMS, the instant message, the tweet, the email–to retrieve our lives.

My croissant sized phone, for example? It has a feature that, when I turn it over, mutes all incoming calls and sounds. Now that’s civilized.

The Fate of New Acquisitions: Whither or Wither?

By Jeremy Wagstaff

I’m writing this on a Windows PC using a great piece of Microsoft software called Windows Live Writer. And that’s only part of the problem.

As you no doubt know, Microsoft have announced they bought Skype, the Internet telephony company, for $8.5 billion. You’ll have to look under a lot of stones to find someone who thinks this is a good deal for Microsoft. Skype made $20 million last year on revenue of $860 million, posting a net loss of $69 million because of interest expenses. In short, this is not a company about to fill Microsoft’s coffers with dosh.

Whenever a big company goes on a buying spree I reach for my gun and head for the hills. These things never end well. A few weeks back we heard about Cisco buying and then killing Flip, those great little pocket cameras so simple to use people actually use them. I used to keep a list of these acquisitions, because I naively used to think that a big company buying a smaller one was a happy ending. I’ve nearly always been proved wrong.

Yahoo bought a browser bookmarking service called delicious that they parked in a siding until eventually selling it, a few weeks back, to someone who actually seems to understand the product. In fact a fun game is to quiz Yahoo PR people about the state of their company’s lesser known products and count how many “I’ll have to get back to you on that one” responses. I’ll give you a head start: Ask about Konfabulator, a sort of desktop widgets program which was excellent, but has quietly withered on the Yahoo vine. The developer’s blog hasn’t been updated since 2007.

Yahoo are probably the most egregious offenders but everyone does it. Google boughtJaiku, a twitter-like service that was better than twitter, but have done precisely nothing with it. Nokia bought dopplr, a social networking service for people who travel, and have done precisely nothing with it. (Product blog hasn’t been updated since September 30 2009, two days after Nokia bought it.)

So why do it? Buying companies makes people money, somewhere in the chain. It disguises ineptitude, or it is what is called a defensive play: I’ll buy it so you can’t.

The Skype deal neatly illustrates Microsoft’s problem is a simple one: It lacks direction. It doesn’t seem to know what it wants to do so it creates a new brand, a new product, a new division—often out of an old one. The product I’m writing this on is part of (frankly the only good part of) the Windows Live array of products—whatever that is; I’ve never quite figured that part out. (Type live.com into your browser and something different seems to happen each time; now it’s a sort of stream of consciousness page that’s more of a stew of Microsoft’s various offerings. ) Windows Live Writer was part of a product Microsoft bought called Onfolio; it has survived, somehow, though few people seem to know about it outside a very narrow group of enthusiasts.

And here’s the rub. Microsoft has no idea what to do with all these products it spews out or inherits, so it forgets about them. Most of you know that Hotmail and Bing are Microsoft products. But how about Lync? Or Kin? Anyone remember Zune? And what is the difference between Windows Live and Windows Live Essentials, for example? Or Windows Messenger, Office Communicator, Windows Live Messenger and MSN Messenger? Or Sync Center, Live Mesh, SkyDrive, FolderShare and Live Sync?

No, I’m not sure either.

Go to Windowsmarketplace.com and you’ll be told that “Windows Marketplace has transitioned from an ecommerce site to a reference site.” Confused yet? Go togetpivot.com, the website of what was billed a year or so back as “the most ambitious thing to come out of Live Labs” and you’ll get directed to, er, bing.com. Live Labs itself was disbanded a few months later. Now old links to Live Labs go to bing.com, which was where those members of the team ended up that didn’t quit. Out of the 14 projects initiated by the lab counted on Wikipedia, all but five are dead. Of those, only a couple seemed to still have any life in them.

When a company diverts a link from one of its own press releases barely a year old to, effectively, nowhere, it’s a pretty good sign that’s where the vision has gone too. This was after all Microsoft’s big research team—at least the most exciting one (Microsoft spends about $9 billion per year on R&D, according to Jean-Louis Gassée, a French analyst.) Microsoft products seem to get lost in a labyrinth of confusing branding, branching and segmentation tunnels, confusing and demoralizing the user to the degree they throw up their hands and go buy a Mac.

Not I. I know about Microsoft products because I use them. A lot. And the more I usemy Mac the more impressed I am with parts of Windows 7.  The problems with the operating system could be fixed in an afternoon: Watch a couple of users try it out and then ask them what was missing. Build those bits into a new version, ditch the trash and you’re good to go. (Some clues: something like iPhoto but better than Photo Gallery for handling photos. Something like iMovie but not Movie Maker. Apple’s products all come pre-installed. Microsoft’s are a confusing, lengthy and intrusive download and reboot away. Oh, and something half way between Microsoft Word ($200 or thereabouts) and the freebie WordPad; Apple’s equivalent Pages costs $20. It’s not as good as Word, but it’s a 10th the price.)

So where is Skype going to fit into all this? Well, the problems start with Skype itself. Since eBay bought it in 2005 it has been something of an orphan, passed around with little idea of what its future might be. It wasn’t always thus. I drank the Kool-Aid back in 2005, and thought like others it was going to change the way we communicated and did business online. I joined the vision of a world where everyone from clairvoyants to business consultants (ok, that’s not such a wide swathe) would offer services over Skype. Audio, text, video, you name it.

That hasn’t happened. For most people it is just a way to avoid paying rip-off phone charges and do the odd video call. Everything else is marginal. The most recent Extra—the add-ons that were supposed to be part of this new Skype ecosystem–is dated January 2010 and that’s just an update on an old program. One guy I interviewed in 2005 had set up a network of 30,000 experts in 50 countries on a website called Jyve.com that was going to piggyback this new Skype-connected world. He’s nowhere to be found now and Jyve.com is an empty page.

eBay didn’t get it, of course, but that’s only part of the story. About a year ago I wrote a piece calling on Skype to realize that it was at heart the world’s most effective social network tool. I wrote:

If Skype dovetailed with Facebook, twitter and LinkedIn it could position itself at the heart of social media. After all, it’s probably the only application that most Internet users have installed, loaded and [have] active on their computer. Unlike Facebook et al, Skype is there, right in the moment. It’s the ultimate presence app.

Indeed, it’s much more like an instant Rolodex (remember those?) than all the other networking services we use. If I want to contact someone the first place I check is Skype—if they’re online, what’s the point of contacting them any other way?

In other words, Skype offers a granularity that other social networking tools don’t: Not only is it comfortable with one to all (the status update message), it’s also comfortable with the one to several (add people to a chat or call), it’s also great at instantly connecting one on one. You can even reach people offline via it, if they have call forwarding enable, or you have their SMS details stored.

No other social network offers that.

Skype sits on every computer (and most smartphones.) By definition all the people the user is connected to are people he wants to actually communicate with—rather than just ‘friending’ or ‘ ‘connecting to’. It’s an easier way to share stuff—photos, files etc–and it’s now pretty easy to set up groups and stuff (In Afghanistan we used it as a way to share security updates; people could see the information in real time or catch up on messages when they got online. In Singapore I use it to talk to my students via teams and the whole class.)

Unfortunately Skype may have read my piece, or they may not. Either way, they half went down this road by trying to throw in lots of things that people didn’t need—including an annoying Firefox extension that turned every number on a webpage into a phone number, including bank accounts. Now Skype is so big and clunky it crashes on my Android phone and my Windows computer.

But in a perfect world Skype works. It’s simple. For many people it’s a telephone. For others it’s a presence indicator: I’m online, I’m not. My computer is connected to the internet (green button showing) or there’s a problem with the connection (grey downer button showing). For some people it’s become a very useful way to organize teleconferences (though don’t talk to my colleagues on an Indonesia project about this; they spend hours trying to get a connection going.)

Skype wasn’t first but it worked better than others, which is why everyone has a Skype account, and why asking for someone’s Skype ID is almost as natural as telling asking for their email address.

But unfortunately I’m not sanguine about a Microsoft/Skype future. Either they integrate the technology behind it into their other smorgasbord of products, in which case you wonder why they didn’t develop the technology themselves, or they leave it as it is. Either way it’s not good: While analysts have focused on how Skype might fit into Microsoft’s non-PC products like Kinect and Xbox, it’s hard to imagine that Microsoft won’t try to shoehorn Skype users into one of its misbegotten sub-brands, losing non-Windows users along the way.

Skype Messenger anyone? Live Skype? Skype Office? Skype Explorer? I shudder to think what will happen. I may be wrong—I’ve been plenty wrong about Skype before—but my fear is of a Skype that gets as clunky and overloaded as MSN Messenger, as bewildering as the Live family of products, as impossible to separate from other Microsoft products as Microsoft Word, as doomed as Outlook Express and anything from the Live Labs mob.

I do hope I’m wrong because of all the networks I have on my computer and cellphone, Skype is still the one I actually need. Skype: whither or wither?

The Missed Call: The Decade’s Zeitgeist?

By Jeremy Wagstaff

(this is a longer version of an upcoming syndicated column.)

When people look back at the last decade for a technology zeitgeist they may choose SMS, or the iPod, or maybe even Facebook. Me? I’d choose the cellphone call that rings, briefly, and then is silent.

It’s one of those social phenomena that has so embedded itself in the culture that we don’t even notice it. It developed its own syntax, its own meaning, and even shifted the boundaries of cultural mores and social intercourse. Even I didn’t realise it was so widespread until I started researching this article. And yet, at least in the middle of the decade, it spanned all continents and was accounting for more than half of cellphone traffic in many developing countries.

So what is the miscall and why is it—was it–so big? The miscall is simple: I call your cellphone but hang up before you pick up. Instead of you thinking there’s a mistake, you know exactly why I called, and either call me back, or don’t, depending on how we’ve agreed on what the miscall means. It’s a form of communication that requires no words, no speech, and, most importantly, no expense. At least for you and me. Not, sadly, for the cellphone operator.

But initially cellphone operators weren’t too bothered.

There’s a temptation, after all, to regard the miscall as a poverty thing, done by poor people. I don’t have any money; you have money, so you call me. Indeed, in Ethiopia it’s called miskin—Amharic, deriving from the Arabic for “poorest of the poor”, with a distinct connotation of being worthy of pity. And among youth the lure of the cellphone is matched only by the limits on a budget. So, someone somewhere is going to call back, so money will be spent on a call, somehow.

But two researchers for Norway-based Telenor Hanne Geirbo and Per Helmersen found that was only part of the picture, even in a place like Bangladesh. Combing the data from a single day of Grameenphone’s traffic, they concluded that “the charged traffic generated from an initial missed call is minimal compared o the missed call activity.” In short, a missed call didn’t result in a real call.

This was communication in itself, not just a plea for communication.

Not only that: making the missed call was so easy—hit the green button, wait for a ring and then hit red—that it was stopping other services, like SMS, from getting any traction. And we’re not talking small potatoes here: Missed calls constituted upwards of 70% of Grameenphone’s total network traffic in any hour. Some people were sending miss call after miss call, one after the other—100, or even several hundred, miscalls in a short period. This, in the words of the researchers, was “a major cause of congestion at peak periods,” leading to calls disconnected, or not being connected in the first place. In 2005 one Kenyan cellular network estimated that four million miscalls were being made daily on its network.

A miscall, then, is a lot more than a call me back thing. It’s a fast way to communicate a key piece of information to someone who is already expecting it around that time, and only needs to be activated:  “I’m home, throw the gate keys down.” The timing is the context that gives the unspoken, unwritten message meaning: A miscall at 6 pm may mean I just left work.

And, if there isn’t any specific time context it may just mean: “I’m missing you.”

Then there’s the another parameter: how many missed calls are made can vary the message. Two missed calls means “I’m running late” or “I’m at home, where are you?” depending, it would seem, on what part of Bangladesh you’re in. In Syria five missed calls in rapid succession means “I’m online, let’s chat.” There are business uses too: Farmers in Bhutan, according to UNCTAD’s annual Information Economy Report published in October, know how much milk their customers want by the number of miscalls. They then miscall the customer back within 15 minutes; no miscall means no stock. Researchers in India, where miscalls accounted for about 40% of all calls, found that the miscall was used by print and ticketing shops to let their customers know their orders were ready.

Missed calls can be fun if you don’t have much else going on in your life. Try to irritate your friends by miscalling them; if someone is doing it to you, try to pick up before they hang up, losing them credit and the game. This may sound inane, but these calls are likely to be serious network congesters. If the power goes off, the researchers found, Bangladeshis would entertain themselves by miscalling friends, relatives, and even complete strangers. The researchers found one young woman met her boyfriend that way. If you call communicating only by cellphone a relationship. Who said blackouts couldn’t be fun?

Talking of flirting, missed calls can create a private space between two people who couldn’t otherwise connect without fear of exposure or ridicule. One 44-year old Bangladeshi admitted to expressing his love by sending the object of his affections hundreds of miscalls. In Damascus it’s no different: One young man proudly explained to a journalist from Syria’s Forward Magazine last year that he sometimes gets 250 miscalls from his girlfriend.  Young couples in a relationship miscall each other to check the line is free or to keep the line busy—either way ensuring their paramour is not otherwise engaged, so to speak. Starting to feel sorry for the network operator yet?

Husbands expect calls from spouses at fixed times as signals that the house is running smoothly. Children check in with their parents. Newly married women get their mothers to call without incurring the wrath of their mothers-in-law. Friends miscall a member of their circle who couldn’t make their evening out, as if to say: we’re missing you.

There are rules, of course, about who one can and cannot miscall. No one below you in the hierarchy, either in the family, the office, or the community (one man is quoted as specifying “driver and electricians…it’s a matter of prestige.” And don’t miscall your teacher or your boss. At least in Bangladesh. in Africa, where it’s called variously “flashing” and “biper”,  there are complex rules about who can be flashed. Among friends, one commenter on a Nigerian blog said, it’s about exclusion: with miscalls “there is complete communication beyond the scope of outsiders.”

In other words, the missed call is not some reflection of not having enough credit. It’s a medium of exchange of complex messages that has become surprisingly refined in a short period. Much of it is not communication at all, at least in terms of actual information. It’s what the researchers identify as phatic communication: where the interaction is the motivation not the content of the message itself. Or, as a Filipino professor, Adrian Remodo put it to a language conference in Manila in 2007 at which they votedfto make miscall, or miskol in Tagalog, the word of the year: A miskol is often used as “an alternative way to make someone’s presence felt.”

Indeed, the fact that the message itself has no content is part of its beauty. Just as the SMS is confined to 160 characters—meaning it can either be pithy or ambiguous, depending on the effect you’re looking for—so can the missed call be open to all kinds of interpretation. A lover receiving a missed call can fill her evening contemplating what was meant by those few unanswered rings.

The Telenor researchers speak of how this “practice contains valuable information about the communication needs and preferences of our customers.” Very true. But one gets the feeling that their call for more research to “provide the telecom industry with a much-needed window into the socio-cultural life space of our customers , and suggest new service offerings that better match their needs and circumstances” may have fallen on deaf ears.

I’ve not found much evidence of this, and that was written back in 2008. Some African cell providers gave away five free “Please call me” text messages to each subscriber. A Swiss company called Sicap has had some success in Africa with a service called Pay4Me, which is a sort of reverse charge call for mobile phones. The only difference I can see between this and the miscall is that the callee doesn’t have to make the call, so to speak. That, and the fact that most prepaid services nowadays don’t let you make a call if you have a zero balance—which accounts for 30% of African users, and 20% of Indian cellphone users, according to Telenity, one company hoping to offer the callback service.

Telcos in Afghanistan offer polling services where respondents, instead of texting back their answers, miscall a number depending on their choice of answer. More creatively, some socially minded organisations have used the miscall as a cheap way to communicate: Happypill, for example reminds you to take medication if you fail to miscall them at an appointed time each day.

The point is that while usage may vary it’s common in many countries—and has been for much of the past decade. As soon as mobile phones came with prepaid vouchers, and operators included the name and number of the caller on the handset display, so did the opportunity arise for someone to pay for your call.  In France and in French-speaking Africa it’s called “un bip”, I’m told, and one commenter said that it’s included in some prepaid packages. In Iran it’s called “tak”; in Australia “prank” and in the U.S. “drop call”. In Italy, apparently, it’s called “squillo” and in Oman a “ranah” (where there’s even a pop song based on the practice).

And it goes further back than that: “Call me and hang up when you arrive,” my mum used to say to her impoverished student son.

Of course, there are reasons to be concerned about this. One Indian columnist wrote:

What, then, will happen to the human voice? If two rings on the mobile are sufficient to say “I miss you”, what will become of the impassioned verses that poets have so far written to appease their beloved? I wonder how a dialogue will sound in a world where voices have become ringtones.

It may be that the miss call culture is in decline. Jonathan Donner, a Microsoft researcher who has looked into this phenomenon more than most, noted back in 2007 a “beep fatigue”, leading some to turn off their caller ID function and ditch phone numbers that clearly indicate they are on a postpaid package. And in some places where the costs of a call and an SMS have fallen to pretty much nothing, the appeal of the miscall has waned in some places.

An SMS would work, but requires typing, and in a place like Bangladesh, where more than half the population is illiterate that’s not a popular option. And text messages sometimes take a couple of minutes to arrive: a call is immediate—something that’s apparently important to my Filipino friends.

Then there’s the fact that the missed call can be discreet in a way that a phone call, or an SMS, can’t be. You could make a miscall from inside one’s bag or pocket (and I frequently do, though that’s by accident.)  Which may explain why, a student  in Pakistan wrote earlier this year:

what amazes me the most is unlike other fads such as texting obsessively etc have gone away pretty quick ,this ‘miss call’ culture still reigns supreme in most of our society.

My tupennies’ worth? As the SMS, which created its own culture out of the limitations of what was not supposed to be a commercial service, so has the miscall created its own norms. Whether these survive the next decade is unlikely. But we should watch these things carefully, not because they represent commercial opportunities—we’re bound to mess that up—but because they speak volumes about the inventiveness of the human spirit, and its ability to squeeze rich new forms of communication out of something that, on the surface, seems to be nothing—a briefly ringing, and unanswered phone.

AboutFacebook

This is a copy of my weekly Loose Wire Service column for newspapers, hence the lack of links.

By Jeremy Wagstaff

A few weeks ago I talked about Facebook’s brave new world of connecting your profile to all the other bits and pieces you leave on websites. I erred, and I apologize.

I thought that people wouldn’t mind the reduction in privacy that this would involve. At least I didn’t think they’d mind as much as a couple of years ago, when Facebook tried something similar.

But people did. And Facebook has been forced to respond, simplifying the procedures that allow users to control who can see what of the stuff they put on Facebook.

So was I really wrong? Do people still care so deeply about privacy?

Hard to say. Back then I said that we have gone through something of a revolution in our attitudes to privacy, and I think I’m still right about that. But I hadn’t taken into account that just because our attitudes have gone through wrenching changes doesn’t mean we’re comfortable with them.

Social networking—itself only a few years old—has forced us to shift our approach. When the Internet was just about email, that was pretty simple. We might balk at giving our email address out to weirdoes at parties with hair growing out of their ears, but that was no different than handing out our phone numbers, or home address.

But social networking is different. By definition the barriers are down, at least partially, because the network demands it. Networks require nodes, and that means that Facebook and every network like it needs to make it easy for people to find other people—including your folically resplendent stalker.

So already we’re talking a question of degree of privacy. And of course, we insist on these services being free, so the relationship we have with the purveyor of the social network is an odd one: Our investment in it is one of time, not money.

But nowadays many of us value time more highly than money, so we feel oddly possessive about our social networks. It’s not, I hasten to add, that we wouldn’t take our business elsewhere, as we did with MySpace and Friendster, but Facebook is somewhat different.

For one thing, the numbers are astonishing. Facebook has more than 400,000 active users—half of them logging on at least once a day. In other words, for many people Facebook has become email.

This has forced changes in privacy, because it’s impossible not to be private and be an active Facebook user. Unlike email, most Facebook activity is visible to other people. So I can, if I want (and I don’t, but can’t really help it), find photos of my nephew caressing a female friend, something I would have been horrified to allow my uncle to see when I was his age.

In part it’s a generational thing. We adults have no idea what it must be like to surrounded by cameras, transmission devices, mass media—an all-embracing Net–from our early years.

But does that mean that younger people are just more relaxed about privacy, or that they just haven’t learned its value? Much of us older folks’ understanding of privacy comes from having lived under snooping governments, or knowing they exist on the other side of iron or bamboo curtains. Or we read and could imagine 1984.

Or, simply, that we’ve had something private exposed to the public. I once had some love poems I had written at school to two sisters read out in front of the school when I foolishly left them behind on a desk. Since then I lock up all my love poems to people related to each other under lock and key.

Younger people, it’s thought, don’t care so much about this. They grow up in a world of SMS, of camera phones recording every incident, of having one’s popularity, or lack of it, measured publicly via the number of friends one has on Facebook.

This is all true, of course. And while employers may still be Googling potential employees, and looking askance at images of them frolicking, this is going to get harder to do when all their potential employees are on Facebook, and all sport photos of them frolicking.

This is part of a new world where the notion of privacy is balanced by transparency: Online is no longer a mirror image of offline, in the way email was just a more efficient postal service.  It’s now a place that one shares with lots of other people, and to play a role in it entails a certain visibility.

This is both the price and the reward of being online. There are bound to be things we’d rather keep to ourselves but we also recognize an advantage in such public access. Just as people can discover things about us, so can we discover things about them. A rising tide, as they say, lifts all boats. If you have an Internet connection.

In some ways this is deeply subversive, since it undermines the traditional structures of society. A teacher or speaker can be subverted by a back channel of comments among the class or audience to which he is not privy. Reality gets distorted, and traditional dominance undermined.

I was sitting in a hearing the other day where those being grilled by the legislators were maintaining a quite noisy twitter presence that stood in contrast to their respectful tone in the session. Two channels, both of them public, but both of them trains running on parallel tracks. Which of them is real?

Technology is moving ahead, and we’re catching up. But we’re catching up at different rates.

If an employer can’t make a distinction between an employee’s office persona and their, for want of a better expression, their personal persona, then they’re probably not very good employers.

Still, there are limits. The British man who joined a rampaging mob in Thailand and yelled at a passing citizen journalist hadn’t considered the consequences should that video clip end up on YouTube. Which it did and he now faces a lengthy time in jail.

Adolescents who share racy photos of themselves by cellphone are discovering the limits to transparency when those photos spread like wildfire. And one can’t help but suspect that not all school kids feel comfortable with the intensity of digital interactivity.

Which brings us back to Facebook.

Facebook is the thin end of a big wedge. We’ll probably look back and wonder what all the fuss was about, but that doesn’t mean we’re wrong in questioning Facebook’s actions or its motives.

But we’d be smarter if instead of putting Mark Zuckerburg in the stocks, we took stock of what we really want out of these services, and what we really want to share and what we don’t. I suspect that we simply haven’t done that yet, and so we lash out when such moves force us to confront the new reality: that definitions of privacy and openness have changed, are changing, very radically and very quickly.

The End of Boorish Intrusion

(This is a copy of my Loose Wire Sevice column, produced for newspapers and other print publications.)

By Jeremy Wagstaff

One of the ironies about this new era of communications is that we’re a lot less communicative than we used to be.

Cellphones, laptops, iPhones, netbooks, smartphones, tablets, all put us in touching distance of each other. And yet, perversely, we use them as barriers to keep each other out.

Take the cellphone for example. Previously, not receiving a phone call was not really an option.

The phone would ring from down the hall, echoing through the corridors until dusty lights would go on, and the butler would shuffle his way towards it.

Of course, we were asked by the switchboard operator whether we’d take a call from Romford 230, but unless you were a crotchety old earl, or the person was calling during Gardener’s Question Time, you’d usually accept it.

Nowadays we generally know who it is who’s calling us: It tells us, on the screen of the phone. It’s called Caller ID. This enables us to decide whether or not to receive the call. And that’s where the rot sets in.

Some of us refuse to accept a call from a number we don’t recognize. It could be some weirdo, we think. Some of us will only take a call from a number we don’t recognize. We’re adventurous, or journalists sensing a scoop, or worried it may be grandma calling on the lam from Belize.

Some of us see a number from someone we know, and even then don’t take the call. Maybe we’re busy, or asleep, or watching Gardener’s Question Time.

The phone has changed from being a bit like the postman—a connection with the outside world, and not someone you usually turn away—to being just one of a dozen threads in our social web.

And, as with the other threads, we’ve been forced to develop a way to keep it from throttling us. Whereas offices would once be a constant buzz of ringing phones, now they’re more likely to be quieter places, interrupted only by the notification bells of SMS, twitter alerts or disconnecting peripherals.

I actually think this is a good thing.

I, for one, have long since rejected the phone as an unwelcome intrusion. I won’t take calls from people who haven’t texted me first to see whether I can talk, and those people who do insist on phoning me are either my mother or someone I don’t really care for.

What has happened is that all these communications devices have erased an era that will in the future seem very odd: I call it the first telecommunications age. It was when telephones were so unique that they dominated our world and forced us to adapt to them. We allowed them to intrude because most of us had no choice.

There was no other way to reach someone else instantaneously. Telegram was the only competitor.

Now we have a choice: We can choose to communicate by text, twitter, Facebook, Skype, instant message, email. Or not actually communicate directly at all: We can set up meetings via Outlook or Google Calendar, or share information without any preamble via delicious bookmarks or Google Reader.

Our age has decoupled the idea of communicating with the idea of sharing information. This is probably why we have such trouble knowing how to start a conversation in this new medium. When the communication channel between us is so permanent, when we know our friends are online because we can see them online, then communicating with them is not so much beginning a new conversation as picking up a new thread on one long one.

We have all come to understand this. We see each other online, we know everyone we’ll ever need to communicate with is just an @ sign away, so we all appreciate the tacit agreement that we don’t bother each other unless we really need to.

And then it’s with a short text message, or an instant message that pops up in a unobtrusive window.

In this world a ringing phone is a jarring intrusion, because it disrupts our flow, it ignores the social niceties we’ve built up to protect our permanent accessibility. It’s rude, boorish and inconsiderate.

Which was probably what people said about the introduction of the telephone. It’s only now that we realize they were right.

The New Normal: Constant Flux

(This is a copy of my Loose Wire Sevice column, produced for newspapers and other print publications. Hence the lack of links.)

I was reading a blog by a World Banker the other day—now there’s a phrase I wouldn’t have thought I’d use a few years ago—about our old favorite in this column: Twitter.

Now don’t get me wrong. It’s good that the World Bank is blogging, and talking about Twitter. And one shouldn’t judge the thinking of the Bank from the words of this World Bank employee—who is not part of the banking part of the Bank.

But it does reflect, I suspect, a lingering and dangerous misconception about what Twitter—indeed, social media—is among institutional thinkers.

The writer, Filipino Antonio Lambino, writes:

The point is this: norms will continue to shift around a bit (or a lot) but will eventually take hold.  The same medium or application is likely to be used differently by different people in different contexts – and rules of engagement will emerge for these various uses.  Until things settle down, however, some of us are bound to remain a little conflicted and uncomfortable.  And through this transition period, by using what we like and rejecting what we don’t, we become direct participants in the norm-setting process.

Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. The truth is that there is no norm. Or the norm is that there is no norm. We’re now in a state of constant flux. Antonio can become a direct participant in the norm-setting process, but he will be disappointed if he’s looking for some norm-setting moment. The reality is there is none.

The fact that he’s using a blog—and tweeting his post on his twitter feed—should give him a clue. Blogs were the first assault on the citadel of there being any ‘norm’. They were initially a reaction against the idea that you needed to know HTML, the formatting and design language of the web, in order to create stuff on the web.

The argument went: Why should we have to know that kind of thing to be able to share our thoughts online? We don’t have to know how to make a notebook to write things down. We don’t have to know how to make a camera to take photos. Why should we have to know the inner workings of the web in order to use it to create stuff?

So blogs were born. But they quickly evolved. There was no norm. Blog is short for web-log since it was assumed that blogs would be online journals. But they’re not. When was the last time you read a blog about what someone was up to? Blogs are a medium for ideas and reporting.

Then along came things like Flickr, YouTube, Wikipedia, MySpace, Facebook, Friendster et al.

All have had to adapt to their users. YouTube was ‘broadcast yourself’ but now is more about rebroadcasting what other people, or TV stations, have already broadcast.

Facebook was supposed to be for college kids to connect to each other. Wikipedia was originally supposed to be content produced by academic specialists. It only took off when they let anyone contribute. Now it’s evolving again, as users wrestle with each other over what constitutes a Wikipedia-worthy entry.

And this process of evolution is also evolving. Twitter started out as a SMS message sharing system. Users took it in different directions and the founders were smart enough to follow. As you know, most of the features that make Twitter what it is—hashtags, mentions, retweeting—were all devised by users themselves.

Twitter is just one: look at FriendFeed, Google Buzz etc as examples of flux, where users figure out how they want to use it and the creators of the service hold their breath. 

The point, as Antonio would say, is this: Norms were norms because they were set by a limited group of people. Those with power—either financial or political. Newspapers have all sorts of norms, from the headline size to the fact that sports are usually at the back. Norms get established because the creators are limited in number and control the means of creation.

That’s no longer the case. Now the people who create things on the web have to genuflect before their customers, because the customers determine the success of a product. The customer is the user is the creator. The customer sets the norm. The creator of a medium in this new world is not the creator of the content that makes it a success. The two have been separated.

Hence, a norm today may not be there tomorrow. It used to be the ‘norm’ that if someone followed you on Twitter, you politely followed back. That’s no longer the case (spammers put paid to that, but it also became unwieldy.) It used to be the norm that you posted links to your own content on twitter; now you do it sparingly unless you’re a Twitter god.

So, Antonio and others who are waiting for things to settle. They won’t. Already Twitter is becoming something else, and probably has a life span of five more years max. Other services will come and take its place. It’s a fast moving universe.

I’m glad the World Bank is making space for Antonio and like-minded souls to ponder the significance of these new networks. My advice: jump in and experiment, and enjoy the ride. Just don’t expect it to come to a final destination. Especially one called Norm.

Skype’s New Dawn?

We talk about Facebook, twitter, MySpace and Friendster as the big social networks but we keep forgetting one that is far bigger than that: Skype. This from a Bloomberg piece on Skype’s vacillating fortunes:

Skype has soared in popularity since it started in 2003 and has about 548 million users worldwide—more than Facebook, MySpace and Twitter combined.

Pretty much everyone I know is on Skype—more so than Facebook—and their investment in it is greater: They had to figure out how to install software, set up a microphone, a webcam, create an account, and maybe even buy credit. More importantly, they can actually estimate its value to them, by counting the money it’s saved them, if they want.

We all know about eBay’s missteps with Skype over the past few years and the software could definitely do with a total overhaul. But now there are new faces involved—including Marc Andreessen, who knows a thing or two—I foresee huge opportunities ahead.

One is a route they’re clearly going to take: the enterprise. That makes sense, but it also means damping down Skype’s huge social reputation, since companies will tend to think of it as at best a frivolous time waster for its employees, at worst a security threat.

Still, it would make lots of sense to go that route, possibly creating a separate sub brand of Skype that built a wall between the existing network of users and the enterprise one.

But I think there’s a much bigger opportunity out there, one that was talked up back in 2005 but never left the ground. That was leveraging the free connectivity to allow an eco system of services to develop atop of it.

Consulting, translation, education, all that kind of thing.

This never really took off, but I think that may have had more to do with its execution, and the fact that the world wasn’t quite ready. Most people signed up to Skype for the free calls. They weren’t really interested in more than that.

And yet since then Facebook and other social networks have. (Taken off, I mean.) Doing, actually, pretty much the same thing. Setting up an account, adding your buddies to it, and then communicating.

But the potential of that network was never exploited. A few memory-hogging applications and a few desultory ads have been pretty much it.

Maybe now Skype can make the most of this. One is the eco system of services I mentioned, but there are also location-based opportunities, mobile opportunities, video opportunities.

If Skype dovetailed with Facebook, twitter and LinkedIn it could position itself at the heart of social media. After all, it’s probably the only application that most Internet users have installed, loaded and active on their computer. Unlike Facebook et al, Skype is there, right in the moment. It’s the ultimate presence app.

Indeed, it’s much more like an instant Rolodex (remember those?) than all the other networking services we use. If I want to contact someone the first place I check is Skype—if they’re online, what’s the point of contacting them any other way?

In other words, Skype offers a granularity that other social networking tools don’t: Not only is it comfortable with one to all (the status update message), it’s also comfortable with the one to several (add people to a chat or call), it’s also great at instantly connecting one on one. You can even reach people offline via it, if they have call forwarding enable, or you have their SMS details stored.

No other social network offers that.

Of course, Skype has some ways to go to do this. The interface needs a serious rethink: It looks so 2000s.

It needs to add—or reintroduce—lots of features, like individual invisibility (being invisible to some people and not others), to encourage those who either don’t have it running or have themselves permanently invisible, to keep it there in their system tray.

It needs to lower some of its walls to allow interoperability with other chat clients, like Google Talk, and with services like Facebook and LinkedIn. Indeed it should throw open all its doors, so I can look up my friends on the Skype app and communicate with them using any or all of those services. Skype is the app is the network.

Then we might be back to those heady days of 2004-2005 when Skype looked like it was not just going to be the end of ruinous IDD phone monopolies, but that it might herald a new era of networking.

How to Abuse Social Media and Lose Friends

I’m sure they’re not the first to do this, but I really hate it: referral marketing.

SingTel, Singapore’s main phone operator, is encouraging Singaporeans to spam their friends via email, twitter, Facebook and SMS.

The sad thing is they’ll have to do this a lot to get anywhere. You get 1 point for every tweet post a day, and 1 point for every post on Facebook a day. If you get a friend to sign up for the program you get 10 points.

Get in the top five and you get to win a Macbook or an iPhone.

Given the top guy already has 742 referrals, I’m pretty sure that means someone is going to have to send out 7,420 tweets to get close. (The rules aren’t clear on this.)

As you can see, however, it’s appallingly popular. Ten in the past minute:

image

Ugh. Any of my Facebook or twitter friends do it and they’re off my Christmas card list. 

And companies that don’t understand social media, who think it’s just another spamming channel, need to get a wake-up call. That’s you, Singtel.

Win an iPhone with SingTel Youth Buddies

Xoopit, Or Channels vs Trenches

I’ve been a fan of Xoopit so I guess I am a bit surprised that Yahoo! has bought it. Xoopit, for me, was the future of email. Or a part of it.

(For those of you who haven’t used it, or those who didn’t “get” it, Xoopit is a plugin for Gmail—for others, too, but Gmail is the best working one—which extends Gmail’s functionlity: better search for attachments, dovetailing with Facebook so you can see who you’re talking to on Gmail etc.)

Xoopit, for me, was/is a way to push email beyond being one channel of communication to being part of a single channel of communication. In other words, I believe it will make no sense to future generations that we have different applications for communicating with people.

Right now we have SMS, phone, email, Facebook, LinkedIn, twitter, face time, and then within those we may have several accounts, depending on whether we’re at work etc etc… This does not make sense.

Some of us would argue that it makes sense if we want to keep our work friends in LinkedIn, and our family friends on Facebook. Yes, but those shouldn’t have to be product choices, surely?

We didn’t use separate postal services to communicate with different kinds of people we knew, or different phones for different kinds of friends? (Well, OK, we may have kept a work phone and a personal phone, but I don’t see many people doing that these days.)

What we are really looking for is a way to organize our increasingly complex social, work and family lives into a coherent web that allows us to control how we communicate with them—not dictated by service, device, product, but by our preferences.

For example, I want to communicate with friend A via SMS because that suits me (and her). I should be able to send that SMS through pretty much any device I want—phone, voice, computer (email, twitter, Facebook etc), TV, pigeon, whatever. It shouldn’t matter to me.

Similarly, the method and format that Friend A receives the message in should be her choice. It shouldn’t be an issue that I sent it as an SMS. She should be able to receive however, and wherever she wishes—guided by whatever factor is important to her (priority—’let everything from Jeremy through’—or cost—‘don’t send me anything by SMS because I’m on roaming, but data is free’ or device—“I’m only carrying my no-data cellphone so route all important communications thro via SMS”.)

Right now this is only a dream, for the most part. Why? Because we’re still stuck in a world of platforms, packages and a lack of understanding of why and how people communicate.

We don’t love twitter because it’s twitter. We love it because it opens all sorts of new doors for sharing information and experiences. And because it’s an open platform, which means we can control how we send and receive.

But we’re still some way off.

Some way off a world where I decide who I communicate with and how I communicate with them, instead of being nudged into one or another walled garden. I may want to talk to Friend A about their holiday on Facebook, but about the new project we’re working on via Gmail. I should be able to do that however I want, and from the same place, and she should be able to decide how she receives and reponds to those emails.

Right now we’re stuck in these trenches dug for us by the creators of the services.

A truly open system will be one where we control these channels.

Xoopit was just a small step, but it had potential. Being able to see whether someone I was talking to on email had a Facebook account—and, if they did, being able to see their profile picture—was great for me, as I communicate often with people I’ve not met, and who often have first names that aren’t always gender specific. Always good to know.

Imagine if that service extended to LinkedIn, twitter and others. Gmail would become a console that would enable me to manage and extend my networks more efficiently than occasional trawling through the network services pages themselves.

And finding attachments? Sounds trivial but it made finding stuff easy, and turned Gmail into an online repository of files I could—relatively—easily share and pass on to others.

Small shifts, but in the right direction.

The chatter on TechCrunch is that Google didn’t buy because it’s launching Wave.

Maybe true, but great though Wave sounds it doesn’t, I think, move us in the direction of open channels. Instead, it sounds a lot like Google wasn’t interested in Xoopit because it was taking Gmail in the wrong direction—into the world of open channels—when Wave is designed to keep us in the trenches.

Beware the SMS Premium Number Scam

An Indian phone company is warning users against a variation on the premium rate phone scam, whereby users are contacted by email or mail and asked to call a number to confirm winning a prize. The number is a premium number—either local or international—and the user has to sit through several expensive minutes of canned music before finding they haven’t won anything.

The Indian variation is that victims are sent an SMS containing the phone number they should call. They’re then charged Rs500 ($10) a minute as they navigate their way through an automated phone tree.

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