Admit it — it’s really great to get the message you want, when you want it, and in the time and place that you want it. And that vision is usually hard to match.
Most Messaging is not Like This
And it’s really horrible to get most unwanted messages. It should be simple (and of course it’s not) to find the right balance of messaging across various clients — be they email, iMessage/SMS, or social — so that you get more signal than noise. The reality is that everyone sends you all of their messages all of the time. Unless you filter communication aggressively, split your contact lists into “family”, “friends”, “acquaintances”, and “block that”, you’re going to have a hard time finding the zen of messaging.
The Unrestricted Inbox is No Fun
The irony of messaging as a category is that as it gets more popular it gets more awful (thanks Nir Eyal for this visual of Message Hell). Yet almost every app and remote communication method needs messaging, because messaging solves the problem of communicating 1:1 (or 1:many) when we are all not physically in the same place and need to respond to each other. We all want the (algorithmically-delivered or not) perfect signal of “need to know” and “just in time” messages while also wanting desperately to avoid the inverse: “crying wolf while seemingly urgent and important”, “informational but not urgent”, or just plain spam.
But Blocking Email is Not A Solution
What will we do to keep the best parts of messaging across clients and channels and remake the part we don’t like that causes inefficiency, anger, and frustration?
Clay Shirky, in the well-known talk above (watch it if you’ve never seen it before), talks of “filter failure” and poses that as an antidote to information overload. However, that talk was several years ago. Things have gottne a lot worse with the volume and speed of information since then.
A Modest Proposal
Here’s the problem as I see it — we have information overload and filter failure. Some of this is bacn — “email you want but not right now”, and we have spam (we all know what that looks like). We have communication from different groups: home, family, work, social, and commercial communications. And we have the very real problem of multiple identity disorder, because there is no universal namespace for messaging someone that would create a “phone number” for all communications.
Most people would say, “I’m not sure I like this but this is sort of fine, because the idea of a universal mailing address sounds even worse.” The whole purpose of messaging, they might say, is “to have varying degrees of anonymity and intimacy based on the level of familiarity and trust you have with the individual who’s contacting you.”
The Typical Answer: Don’t Cross The Streams
This “trust” issue is the crux of the problem we face when we want more signal and less noise in our messaging and in our communication in general. We all have internal business rules we use to govern how we respond to different types of messages.
Whether we have enumerated these “rules” or not, they might look like:
“Answer the phone call on the second or third ring when my spouse or partner calls”
“Text my friend in an hour if I’m busy, or immediately if we are in the process of meeting for coffee or a meal”
“Ignore that spammy message from someone or some business I don’t know.”
“Never look at LinkedIn connection requests (ok, I kid — but this might be a special category for a segment of the population).”
Get More Quiet, Based on Our Actions
Our messaging apps and messaging platforms in general do a poor job of interpreting our own behavior and in translating that behavior (and future, intended behavior) into human-readable business rules that govern apps and give us more signal than noise.
We don’t live in a utopian (or dystopian, depending on your worldview) future when we have universal messaging or aggregate delivery of messages to a single client or brain box and a system to rules to respond automatically or manually to those messages. But given the overall desire to reduce noise and increase signal in the messaging conversations we do have, I propose the following suggestions:
Turn off notifications on your phone or tablet. This seems like a no-brainer but the struggle to fight “notification creep” is real. It only takes a few app-created nudges to generate a storm of messages you don’t need or want, generated by app developers and not by your own actions.
Unsubscribe from information you don’t need or want. Try Unroll and Sanebox to clean up your email — future you will thank you.
Aggressively filter the information you get. Your mileage may vary depending upon your style, so this might mean uninstalling apps, unfriending certain people, using email filtering rules, or just not looking at your devices so often.
Use text messages and iMessages to maintain ongoing, single-threaded conversations to the people who matter to you. What’s better than email? Having only one conversation to respond to, stacked in chronological order. If that person is on your list (let’s say … in your top 25 people), they should either leave that list by falling below a threshold or you will have a clear signal that you need to reach out to them because they’re not at the top of your list.
Think about simple rules and habits that make your life better. When you encounter product managers and other people who work on products and services, be sure to tell them what’s working and what’s not working in the products you use. (Hint: they would like to know what regular people feel.)
What could product managers and developers do to help with the message problem? A great start would be more levers and dials to adjust how we receive messaging. Don’t worry — I’m not suggesting that we create Advanced Settings Panels everywhere — but rather that the products themselves observe and respond to a series of behaviors derived from passive activity and active activity. Passive in this case might mean the messages I don’t respond to, and active could mean the messages I do respond to or arrange into folders or lists. The goal should be to develop a personalized set of rules that will automatically deliver message Air Traffic Control to the average user, not the power user.
What about Ads?
Building a personalized set of messaging rules will make easier to present promoted content in a clear and consistent manner, penalize spam, and highlight the important messages I’d like form the people that matter most. It could be an elusive goal, but I believe that improving messaging incrementally has amazing potential to increase happiness and productivity.The popularity of messaging need not cause its antithesis by creating messages we hate. We should be building new and clearer ways to ensure the right information gets to the right people at the right time, on the right communication channel.
Twitter is the best open social media network there is. Unlike Facebook – which openly states that they control your newsfeed – the basic idea of Twitter is that you follow and find the news, content, and people you want to see. That’s changing – partly because Twitter is a chaotic mess – and partly because it’s easier to consume “channels” of pre-packaged content rather than to find the curated ideas or hashtags that make Twitter great.
Twitter is weird. It is a place where you can find almost any interest represented. Twitter contains bots, it contains parody accounts, weather forecasters, pundits, celebrities, and regular people. And for the most part they all use Twitter in similar fashion – because they have to. Limiting posts to 140 characters remains a brilliant idea because it forces people to be creative and focused. Recent ways that people have changed the form of Twitter have been to use photos to increase the visibility of tweets and to use longer form “Tweetstorms” to express their ideas, stringing together 140-character ideas into longer proto-essays.
Twitter is also free. The combination of free and weird is not likely to produce the predictable revenue stream justifying billions of dollars of valuation. (Although you might look at some of the political movements that have expressed themselves on Twitter and rightfully conclude that there is a billions of dollars of societal motivation happening on Twitter, and that it’s just not monetizable yet.) So what would help Twitter to make money while keeping the service quirky and weird?
In the spirit of a Tweetstorm (where this idea started), here are a few ideas that might help to keep Twitter more open and less like the Walled Garden of Facebook.
1/ #KeepTwitterOpen by reminding #Twitter that in-stream purchase ads > controlling tweets that we see
One of the best ways to #KeepTwitterOpen is to remind Twitter that most people would prefer to be able to buy things from Twitter advertisers to pay for things rather than having the timeline that we either meticulously (or not so carefully) created get selected for us. It’s neat to have an area called “Trending” because that’s a way for people to learn about unexpected things. It’s not so neat to have promoted Tweets for things you don’t care about show up in your tweetstream.
If I follow a brand, I might want to buy things from them right from Twitter. And if there’s another brand out there who would like to engage with me, I’d rather that they start a conversation with an @ reply rather than serving me a promoted tweet or an ad.
2/ #KeepTwitterOpen by creating paid/advertorial curated streams (the Best of Twitter)
It would be nice if Twitter lists worked well. They’re a pain to read and to use unless you use a client that specifically makes this easy. I for one would rather have “advertorial” curated streams – something akin to a sponsored list – to show the best items on a topic. What, you say? #Hashtags are the way to do this – they are organic expressions of people’s tweets on the same topic. And hashtags sometimes also get spammed – it’s hard to know what you’re reading and whether someone is an active participant or just a troll.
Curated streams on a topic or an event are the future of social media – Twitter should figure out how to do this well and then charge a small event fee or a monthly subscription for the “best of” feed.
3/ #KeepTwitterOpen by creating reports on the way people use Twitter and selling those
Analytics are cool. Learning more about the way that people use social media is really compelling. If Twitter isn’t already creating specialized reports for individuals and companies based on the way that people use the service, they are missing out. These reports would be most useful when categorized by “People Like You” or “People in Your City” and would be less interesting to find out “things your friends favorited” since you might already be seeing this sort of content anyway.
4/ #keepTwitterOpen by reminding networks and publishers that many people voluntarily spend time on this network
Twitter has great engagement from the people who use it. Publishers who try to tell Twitter “what to be” and make “experiences” using the network are missing the point that social networks are … well … social. They consist of conversations with people and brands using this unusual format. Twitter has a private and public conversations happening at the same time. It has Tweets and SubTweets. And Twitter is confusing and wonderful and horrible and great. It’s a picture of human nature. Please keep Twitter weird.
Apps and websites (and features) are becoming single function, best-of-breed experiences.
And in the future (and the present) customers want to knit them back together into a mix-up of their own creation.
Services like Zapier (http://zapier.com) and IFTTT (http://IFTTT.com) are just the start. These services enable a kind of personal operating system where you identify the “channels” (where stuff happens, e.g. Twitter, Salesforce, Facebook – there are hundreds), the “triggers” (what causes this to happen, e.g. receiving an email, creating a calendar item, or posting a tweet), and the “actions” (what data is transferred or referenced in another channel, e.g. When I post on Instagram, also post it for me on Flickr; or make a calendar appointment for me automatically when I get this type of email.)
The future belongs to startups that help you make “Data Glue” and “Personal API” management, sticking together all of your best of breed digital exhaust and interactions and photos and stuff into one coherent management view. Yeah, yeah, I know – you keep all of your stuff in Facebook or on Twitter or on Google. But do you? Do you really know where all of your online stuff lives?
Mary Meeker’s Internet Trends presentation is a must read. What is there was a personal API where you could see all of your stuff?
Today you share a lot of information online. And you don’t have a good place to review all of that data, understand how it’s shared, and stop sharing it when you want. We need an API of Me that gives you one place to know what you’re doing and sharing online. You might argue that this is dangerous to connect all of the streams of information and to put management controls in one place. I might argue that it’s potentially dangerous to not know all of the information that’s being shared and connected to you with and without your knowledge.
A personal API could bridge this gap by giving you better control over the information you choose to share and understanding where it’s shared. There are some technical hurdles to making this happen and a start might be: allow consumers to create their own chunks of information that are connected with an API using oAuth to publishers. It’s the same way a company might broker and share this sort of information, only you would be brokering the information and using it as a “pass-through” for the information you currently share on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and other services.
There would need to be a minimum amount information that would be always be shareable and discoverable – for example, you might use as your key the username that you share on those networks (your Twitter handle, LinkedIn ID, etc). As a start you might simply provide extended information to those services. If this is a valuable service to share highly targeted information, then those services might start using you as an API provider.
What if there was a way to package up that data and sell it to people who wanted your stuff and to get payment?
In a world where you had better control over your personal data, you might choose to give it away freely or sell that information. Today there is a Creative Commons license that allows you to give away content easily and it’s much harder to centralize the way that you sell data, mostly because you are often operating under the auspices of other organizations when you create that information. Who owns a Tweet? Who owns a Facebook post? Who owns the digital exhaust of an interaction that you create when you move from place to place?
The future will include: – tightly controlled views of uncontrolled data – custom bundles of seemingly random information that have value when aggregated – individual micro payments for actions online and offline
My first Tweet was a lot like yours: lame. At the time I wasn’t sure what to expect from a service that shared short 140 character bursts about nothing. It seemed mostly like an echo chamber – where you test what might happen if you respond into the void and hear an echo. And for a long time it was an echo.
And then a strange thing happened. As I got into the habit of sharing information in the form of links or ideas that I found interesting, I met people who were like-minded. I found people I had never met before who read my blog posts. And I started searching on Twitter to see what I could find.
I found short messages and pictures of people’s breakfast, of course. I found memes and bots and messages that didn’t really make sense. And then I found real time news, ideas and amazing stories. There were first-person stories about earthquakes. There were impassioned pleas for attention to far flung corners of the world. There were news stories before they were reported on the news. And there were news stories never reported on the news.
The point is that Twitter felt like a new thing – a combination of CB Radio, Community Bulletin Board, conversation and chaos all at the same time. It was a new form of (relatively) unmediated conversation and opened up the world in a way that other walled garden networks (AOL, Facebook, Google) hadn’t done. Twitter’s become a little more grown up in the last year or two and feels more like a media network than it did a few years ago, but it’s still really interesting because you can use its filters to create your own channels for news.
It’s a challenge for a network built on decentralized messages to stay relevant to a large number of customers and to expand its purview beyond individual conversations. Twitter feels like it might get there. I still love seeing pictures of people’s daily experiences published to the web in real time and the snowball effect when people share a meme.
Matthew Stafford – the Quarterback of the Detroit Lions – performed a brilliant sleight of hand on the Dallas Cowboys today. With just a few seconds remaining in the 4th quarter and his team down 6 points having no timeouts, Stafford had an obvious chance to win the same and the clock was in danger of running out. The obvious choice was to spike the ball and stop the clock, giving his team one more chance to win. And that’s what everyone expected him to do.
Stafford ran up to the line shouting to his team to line up so he could spike the ball. And then he did the unexpected – took a quick snap and dove over his offensive linemen for a game tying (and eventually winning) touchdown. The Cowboys were caught absolutely flat-footed, and lost the game.
Was this an Anti-Pattern?
Software developers use the idea of a design pattern – a best practice for approaching a standard problem – as a first step to solving a problem like the one Stafford faced at the goal line. In the case the proper choice might have been either to take a quick pass at the end zone or to stop the clock. An “anti-pattern”, then, is a commonly used method to solve the problem that doesn’t work so well. The typical anti-pattern to an end of the game is one last attempt to make a touchdown, often on a fade or a “jump-ball” effort from the Quarterback to the team’s best receiver at the corner of the end zone.
Both the Cowboys and the Lions teams expected Stafford to spike the ball and stop the clock because that’s what usually happens at the end of a game. But they also should have both known that any play that late in the game and that close to the goal line could be a QB sneak. This wasn’t an anti-pattern or a crazy unexpected move by Stafford – it was just smart football.
What would have a made a difference? If the Cowboys defense had the presence of mind and the ability to focus on the quarterback, they might have been ready for the sneak. And it also might not have made a difference. The defense had just been beaten on a long play to set up the goal line situation, and they might have been demoralized or just ready to give up. Or maybe they were genuinely surprised. In either case the Lions pulled one over on the Cowboys. And Stafford looked like the MVP.
Be Unpredictable while Making a Logical Choice
Stafford succeeded and won the game because he guessed right. There are lots of times everyday in the course of a business when we can do the same. Choosing the unexpected while ensuring that it’s a logical and non-sensical choice is a good way to get a new result. Hopefully it’s the result you want 😉
We all live in our cocoons – our preferred foods, music, routes we take to work, and perhaps even the ideas we take for granted.
What would happen today if you said hello to someone you didn’t know yet, or someone you haven’t talked to in far too long? It might be great – you learn that the person missed you and it feels like yesterday since you last talked. It might feel weird – maybe you don’t have much in common anymore. Or it might feel human – like someone is taking the time to get in touch and is reaching out.
Photographer Richard Rinaldi is taking this human contact to a new level by asking strangers to pose as if they knew and liked each other – there’s a video here – and the result gives the subjects gratitude and a human connection.
What does Rinaldi’s work suggest? Reach out to strangers and people you don’t know very well. The results might surprise you – you might end up feeling more alive.