Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Decline of Instant Messaging

Remember how big instant messenging used to be? I mean, maybe it still is for some of you, but usage has really fallen off the past few years for me and my friends. Releases of new IM clients used to be big news, and interoperability between AOL IM, MSN Messenger, and Yahoo! Messenger was a major issue. So what happened?

There are a number of factors that may have contributed to the decline of instant messaging.

The rise of SMS
The near-ubiquity of mobile devices and affordable texting plans has driven many to consider SMS the primary means to connect with someone -- if you want a communication channel that's less intrusive than a phone call but more immediate than an email. Why?
  1. No interoperability concerns. SMS is the LCD. You know your message is going to get through no matter what "network" the receiver is on. (By network we mean not only "wireless carrier", but also "IM network").
  2. Greater deliverability probability. If you IM someone, if they're not sitting at their computer, they're not going to answer. If you text someone, chances are they're going to get it, no matter the receiver's context. (Yes, I'm simplifying ... IM can extend beyond the desktop, but work with me here).
  3. One less online touchpoint. If you already have someone's phone number, that also serves as their SMS address. You don't need to hold onto and manage yet another "address" for the receiver.
Chat as an application feature
As social networks expand to attempt to capture all of your attention, it makes sense that they would offer chat as an application feature. You're already friends on Facebook, and you're both obviously spending all your time on the site, so why leave to some other place to have a real-time conversation? Web-based applications are now technically sophisticated enough to support this as a usable feature, which leads us to...

Client bloat
Even before services started moving to the cloud, the installed IM applications were getting more and more bloated. People were no longer using the AOL client to access the Internet, for example, and the company was desperate to recage their users. So they foobar'd the client and started adding all sorts of junk: why of course you'd want the latest celebrity headlines and download the most popular ringtones! Turns out that people (well, at least this people) don't like it when you treat them like chattel to be shuttled off to the highest bidder.

Availability of other communication channels
Finally, there are just more ways to communicate, and other channels just might be more nuanced and suitable than the chat protocol. Perhaps a comment on a Facebook status update is a more appropriate exchange, or an @reply on Twitter. There are just more choices, with many choices better than an intrusive IM session.

Certainly, there's still a place for IM and chat. I still have a couple of IM accounts (one on AOL and a Google Talk account or two) and use them almost daily, but I'm generally hesistant to publicize them. Why? It feels too intrusive ... a little too synchronous. I think it's a great medium for communicating with a colleague or chatting with the family, but seeing unsolicited invites to chat from unknown contacts is too jarring for me personally.

How about you? Have you IM/chat habits changed over the past couple of years? Any theories as to why it has changed (or not change) for you?

So, for me, instant messaging represents non-public semi-synchronous communication channel for a close social circle. Put it on the map.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Feed Power

One thing that we really haven't talked about is the fact that this blog itself represents one of my online touchpoints. It's primarily a one-way communication channel (I publish, you read), but like most blogs it also supports comments on each post, so there's a return channel.

As a reader, though, how do you remember to read? How do you know if there's a new post? Well, in the old days, you'd bookmark a link to this blog in your browser and every once in a while you'd come back and visit to see if there's anything new ... until you eventually kind of forgot about it. Tedious! Well, put those bookmarks away, because there's a better way.

There is a "feed" associated with this blog that is your ticket to keep up-to-date with * Power. What is a feed? I've actually spent the last 5 1/2 years of my life helping publishers promote their feeds, so the fact that you have to ask means I've done a terrible job. A feed is something that you subscribe to, so that whenever a blog (in this case) updates, you are notified. The nice thing is that you're in complete control: you can unsubscribe at any time, so spam is not an issue.

To read this blog using a feed, I'd recommend one of three methods:
  1. Use Google Reader, which is by far the best online "feed reader". It's kind of like GMail, except that instead of reading emails, it's filled with all the blogs and news and other information that you have subscribed to. I personally think it's worth the initial investment in time to get it set up.
  2. If you use Internet Explorer to browse the Internet, see that little feed icon up in the toolbar? That means that there's a feed on this page that you can subscribe to. Go ahead and click on it and then say "Subscribe to this feed". Similarly if you use Firefox, there's something called a "Live Bookmark" you can subscribe to. I don't like this method as much as using a feed reader simply because it just creates a glorified bookmark -- it lights up when there's a new post, but you still have to remember to check it.
  3. You can also get new posts via email by providing your email address in that little form in the right-hand sidebar. If you're like me, you're probably leery of providing your email address, but I can personally vouch for this email service. Actually, in a later post, I'll tell you a technique that I use to detect where a spammer got your email address so you know who's leaking your info. [sneak peek]
So, those are some ways that you can follow this blog. I suppose another option is that I could carpet bomb all the social networks to which I belong whenever I create a new post, but I personally find that to be crass and annoying when I'm on the other end of it (note to Future Eric: talk about "social data normalization" as it applies to online touchpoints).

If you'd like to learn a little more about feeds, check out Feed 101 from our good friends at FeedBurner.

For those keeping score at home: yes, the Feed URL represents another online touchpoint. I've added it to the list.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Welcome Facebook friends

If you just found this from Facebook, welcome!

We're taking a look in this blog about all the little scattered pieces of you that exist across the Internet. Let's take a look at Facebook: you can find me there at http://facebook.com/elunt. Yep, another URL to keep track of.

What's the difference between Twitter (which we looked at yesterday) and Facebook? Well, lots, actually. To start with, Facebook appears to be a much more ambitous effort. Facebook's mission is:
Giving people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.
Contrast this with Twitter's stated purpose:
Twitter is a service for friends, family, and co–workers to communicate and stay connected through the exchange of quick, frequent answers to one simple question: What are you doing?"
These differing views of the social world are certainly reflected in the applications themselves. Facebook is really trying to build an expansive edifice with one's social graph as the foundation, with varying degrees of success. Twitter is more of a lean, mean, communicating machine. Twitter is about asymmetric "I follow you" relationships, while Facebook is primarily about symmetric "we are friends" relationships (although that seems to be shifting lately).

I use both services for different purposes, which I think is the natural extrapolation of the fundamental relationship models. I'm pretty protective of who I let into my circle of friends on Facebook and pretty much restrict membership to people I have offline relationships with. I'm not looking to make friends on Facebook, but rather to strengthen or enrich existing friendships.

Many people hook up their accounts so that when they post something to Twitter it automatically shows up as a Facebook status update. I've chosen not to do that because I really treat them as separate channels with separate audiences. I tend to share more personal information and edit myself a bit more when I share a status update on Facebook vs. a tweet. It's the difference between being on stage and being in a small room with family and friends.

Anyway, let's put a thumbtack up on the online identity map: "Facebook". We still have many more territories to visit.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Welcome Twitterers

If you just found this blog via Twitter, welcome! If not, maybe you're wondering why or how you should use Twitter. There are tons of valid uses for the service, but I'll try to share why I tweet.

Twitter is one part of my online identity: I'm @elunt. If you "follow" me, you'll be able to see whatever pithy comments I might share throughout the day. It's an outbound communication vehicle for me: I tweet and anyone who follows me may receive it (with a priority of their choosing). Also, if you include "@elunt" in one of your tweets, I'll probably see it, even if I don't follow you. So, in this way, it's a semi-public two-way non-guaranteed communication mechanism, with each message being limited to 140 characters.

What's the point? Tony Hsieh (@zappos), CEO of Zappos.com, wrote a great post entitled "How Twitter Can Make You A Better (and Happier) Person". He shares some of his thoughts about why Twitter is an effective communication medium for himself and his customers. I totally subscribe to the Tony-Twitter Doctrine. I especially like this quote:
There are many ways to be thankful, and many things to be thankful for, but one technique is to make a more conscious effort to notice and appreciate the little things in life.

For me, because I try to tweet every day, I've found that I'm always looking for opportunities to have something to tweet about. So I end up noticing and appreciating things that I would normally not even give a second thought to.
That's pretty cool, and that's kind of how I treat Twitter (say that five times fast). I generally just try to tweet random observations (some personal, most not) that I hope are humorous, but really it's a low-expectation medium. One of my personal credos that I try to live by is "I don't care if 99 people think I'm an idiot as long as 1 person gets the joke"; Twitter is a great medium to allow me to be an idiot.

There are more things to say about Twitter: how it enables ambient awareness or social proprioception, how its open API encourages adoption, and how its usage is molded by its users ... but that's stuff for later posts. For now, let's just say that it's another one of my online touchpoints.

If you don't currently use the service, I recommend you give it a try for at least a week to get a feel for it. Each online service has it's own vibe and it's own conventions ... some may resonate with you more than others. You may really get into it, or you may just find it to be pointless. But you really can't make that determination from the outside -- you've got to give it a try.

One more point before signing off here: should I have a gadget on this blog that shows my tweets in the sidebar? Ah, now we're getting into some interesting territory -- is the purpose of this blog to be an aggregated view of all of my online touchpoints, or is it just a hosting vehicle for 500-word posts? I'm going to go ahead and leave the sidebar off for now and we'll defer this discussion for a while.

Until next time, happy tweeting!

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Your fractured online identity

One of the motivations behind starting this blog is that I'd really like to take a look at what it takes to establish and maintain a persistent online identity. I don't mean identity as in "identity theft", or an academic treatment of identity formation, or some kind of personal SEO strategy -- I have a much more prosaic interest. I guess I really think of your online identity as being the sum of all the touchpoints on the Internet where you communicate and where others communicate with you. What are your inputs and outputs and how easy is it for others to find these touchpoints?

What are some of these touchpoints? Well, definitely your email address (or addresses) -- that's a main input and output for most online residents. A Facebook account? A blog? An old blog? Comments on blogs? Flickr, Picasa Web Albums, SmugMug? Do you have a wishlist on Amazon.com? How about an Xbox Live account? Ever contribute reviews on yelp? Do you have a Google Profile page? Or use Google Reader to read and share items? Do you tweet? Have you now, or have you ever, shared your location on Google Latitude or foursquare?

Is the sum of that activity "you"? Do you want it to be? How do you manage all that, or have you ever even thought of this as something that needed to be "managed"?

So that's kind of the purpose of this blog: I want to try to figure out what my online identity is and how to wrangle it into something that 1) I can manage, wholly, and have for the rest of my life and 2) can be found and discovered by others that want to find it.

Why would you care about my online identity? You probably don't, but maybe we'll figure out some things that you can apply to your own online life. Maybe you're not so sure that you want joewebber14@comcast.net to be your identity 10 years from now, or you're kind of bumming that your friends think you've fallen off the earth because you moved to Facebook and don't update your MySpace page anymore.

I'm not sure where this will lead, but I'm hoping it'll be a fun journey.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Hello, my name is ...

Why hello there! It's been a while since we've connected. Welcome to my new blog, "* Power" (I call it "star power", but if you want to call it "splat power" I won't stop you). Why is it called that? We'll get into that some other time. In the meantime, please allow myself to introduce ... myself.

My name is Eric Lunt, and here are some vitals:
  • Live in Tower Lakes, IL
  • Currently work at Google in Chicago
  • Co-founder of FeedBurner in the CTO role
  • Lucky to have a supportive wife and three great kids
  • Graduated from Barrington High School in 1988, Princeton University in 1992
  • Been coding in Java pretty much non-stop since 1996
  • Previous companies: Accenture (back when it was Andersen Consulting), Burning Door, Digital Knowledge Assets, Spyonit.com, 724 Solutions
There, is that enough SEO seeding?

I had a blog for a while called "Dancing About Architecture" that is in cryognic storage. I think all of the links still work, but none of the comment stuff works since it's just a snapshot. I'm going to point my blog feed over to this blog after I get this post done, so if you're seeing this as a new post in your feed from an old subscription: nice to see you again!

I'm just going to let this be a short introduction post for now and I'll get into my motivation for starting a new blog with a subsequent post. Thanks!