Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Future of Messaging - The Social Dimension

Social Signals Are Real

Where Do We Look? - As Usual, To The Young.

Innovation in messaging rarely comes from the places you expect. Telco’s thought SMS messaging so useless that they didn’t even bother to price interconnect costs when it was launched. This initial cross network capability (reach), and the relatively low price compared to voice calls, found a niche among young people facing a key constraint: they wanted to communicate with friends but could not  afford to communicate as much as they would like. Once there was a price incentive in place and millions of people were using it new contexts were found that were uniquely appropriate for text. For instance the now common  "running 10 minutes late" message.

In effect SMS created a new back-channel conversation.

What Is a Message?

Sounds like a strange question but Twitter? (www.twitter.com) or comments have re-spun this.  When we "message as social network grooming" we often do not expect a reply, or not right away, but we do expect some form of reciprocity within a certain time frame. Having received a number of fairly passive SMS's from a friend we may feel a strong pressure to not only text back, but actually call them. We "owe" them a call. It is the power of the social bond that creates this pressure to respond.

In the past much of our messaging was one-to-one, we wrote and sent a letter; we picked up a phone and called somebody. Technology enabled us to use the phone to message many others such as group SMS capability (one-to-many). From a particular perspective Interactive Voice Messaging could be considered to be one-to-many in that the call center is calling many customers to give them a message and the option to reconnect. The intertube however excels in creating many-to-many capabilities. So from another perspective, Interactive Voice Messaging matches available customers willing to take the call, and available agents or employees available and suited to take that call. In this case the intertube hosted service acts as a kind of "platform of availability".

Messages are also not static spatial objects sitting in our inbox. They are part of a flow of communication, and it the flow that is becoming increasingly important. Twitter and Facebook present  us with a flow of comments, pictures and the activities of our friends, and we then choose to connect to these comments and pictures or not. The initial posting of the comment or picture is what sociologists refer to as "weak signaling" in that they attract or encourage others to reciprocate with a comment, or to post their own picture. These signals occur in an environment of  many-to-many messaging, and signaling.  Messages themselves could also be considered as being signals that attracts further attention and interaction. The launch of Google Mail (gmail) with conversation threading is one example of an application service that acts in this way.

In conclusion, a message is no longer just the physical letter, the text or talking content. A message can no longer just be considered part of a 1-to-1 interaction that no one else sees, hears or shares. And with the Internet we are likely to see the rise of "communications" themselves as being things, as being social objects, that can be shared, discussed, or that create value in ways we do not currently appreciate.

Part 2

Messaging Will Be Consumed Socially

People with strong common interests or common goals will have reasons to commit to communicating more with each other.  The relationship context will determine how much or how little information we want to know about these people, or from these people. That's why Facebook allows you to "get more or less about this person". This is necessary because as individuals we like to be able to control the flow of information and potential interruptions we are exposed to. From Internet alerts, pings telling us we have new email, to our phone ringing when just about anybody phones, as individuals we desire a way to control that inbound flow. The main problem is that these events come with little context, and little understanding of what I find important right now. Previously the costs associated with making a call acted as an inherent  fee that the caller was willing to pay because they believed the call to be important. With actual call costs decreasing over the last five years, and with the rise of free services such as instant messaging, email and Skype calling, this cost barrier has been substantially lowered, and for many eliminated altogether. We need a new way to figure out which communications are important or not.

As with Internet searches a good predictor of what we like is what we have liked before, what our friends like, and what "people like us, like" (i.e. our profile). In Internet terms I read articles and stories that are recommended by friends (perhaps through Google Reader), or are suggested as stories I might like (as in Google news). This is a blend of algorithmic (automated) and social (physical) filtering. An example might be where we Google the term Restaurant and then check the top three results with some friends to see if anyone we know has actually been there.

We think that this kind of behaviour may play some part in how we manage our interactions with others in terms of "offering invitations to conversation". It will be a blend of automated suggestions and screening, coupled with social filtering and suggestion. When we leave an SMS, this might be seen as a weak invitation to conversation (give me a call back if this interests you). An email might contain a live link to the number of remaining seats at a concert, which might act as an incentive to call back and book a seat when bookings reached a certain point. These would be examples of passive and active invitations.

Some social filtering of the invitation to conversation cycle might be exampled by new services such as http://skydeck.com, and www.xobni.com. These new consumer services hook into your mobile phone (skydeck) to find out who you call, how long you called them, and presents you with the names you call most often at the top of the list. But it might also recommend who you haven't spoken to in a while. It examines the flow of your calling behaviour to find out who is really important to you. Xobni does the same for your email, but also presents you with information as to who is important to the people that you connect to. Add to this all the data being generated on social networks, and internal corporate networks, and you are looking at a fundamental shift in terms of how we engage with others to open up conversation.

We Give Permission and Pay Attention

So messages can be thought of as having social grooming characteristics; as re-enforcing social-bonds; and that often it is the flow of communication that is important, not the individual message per say. We see that messages can act as "social objects" that attract further further comment or action. For companies this means that messages have to be considered as part of an overall communications strategy that builds and supports the customer relationship. Ultimately it is the individual that gives the company permission to call them. Companies have to take care that each message conveys the appropriate content but also that it is in the appropriate flow, otherwise customers withdraw the attention they are willing to give to you, and withdraw from the relationship. Worse still, when these customers withdraw, others in their social network will see them withdraw and will then actively reconsider their own relationship with the company or their opinion of that company.

Companies and vendors of services will have to understand that our willingness to engage will contain both automated and social filtering of invitations to conversation, and that the companies "one-to-one relationship" with the customer is really going to be part of an overall network of "many-to-many relationships", and "many to many conversations".  Found yourself sending email through Linkedin inMail, or Facebook email? You know, I think you are already doing this stuff.


Partial Attention

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