Communications Industries

This is something that I’ve been mulling over for a little while, and I’m hoping that by posting it here, the discipline of having to write it down will clarify it for me. And, perhaps people reading this will comment on the ideas and help flesh them out a bit more.

A variety of industries have developed that deal with interpersonal communications at a distance. Each of them has crystalised around their own set of technologies. However, there seems to be a blurring of the boundaries between them these days, and in order to better understand what this means, it could be helpful to understand how the underlying technologies of these industries relate.

If you simply consider two properties of technologies used by the communications industries, it appears that you can draw some reasonable boundaries. The two properties I’m thinking of are privacy and continuousness, and by building a simple 2×2 matrix out of them, you get the following diagram:

Publishing, Messaging, Broadcasting and Telephony

Admittedly, the separation between Public and Private is a little fuzzy. Does sending something to 10 of your closest friends make something public? What about 100? What about 1,000? Does it depend on the friends? However, I think it is reasonably well understood that you can have private group communication, not just private one-on-one communication. I think we also usually know when we are engaging in something that is highly (publicly?) visible, and something that is private, despite the occasional exception.

And while the distinction between discrete and continuous communication ought to be unambiguous, it too has its fuzziness. A discrete communication is one where the communication itself has a clearly defined boundary, e.g. an image, a movie, a book, a song, or an article. While a continuous communication lasts as long as the communications channel is maintained, e.g. a TV channel, a radio channel, a telephone call, or a video conferencing session. Recordings tend to be discrete while performances tend to be continuous.

But, what if you watch a movie on the TV, or listen to a song on the radio? This is an example of convergence between the different industries. Once a movie or a song is published, the broadcast network can distribute it, although it loses some of its discreteness in the process.

Similarly, there is convergence between the broadcasting and telephony industries. A reporter can call into a news station, and have their story broadcast out to the viewers. Or when your call is put on hold, you may end up listening to a live radio station.

Convergence between telephony and messaging is well understood within the telco realm. You can call and leave a voicemail for someone, which becomes a message they can later retrieve. Or it might be transcribed and then delivered as a text message. Or it could be send as an audio attachment in an email. Or instead of leaving the voicemail, you could record an audio MMS and send that instead. And if a SMS is sent to a fixed phone that cannot display it, a phone call can be generated instead with text-to-speech used to render the message audible.

However, what has become most interesting of all recently is the convergence between messaging and publishing. This blog post is an act of publishing. However, I could have sent it via email to a few of my friends, and that would have been messaging. Instead of emailing it, I can make it available via Facebook. If it is made available to my network of friends, it is messaging. But, with the click of a button I can change my preferences so that Notes are public, so it is publishing.

One of the interesting aspects to social networking for me is that some networks are designed primarily around a messaging model (like Facebook or Friendster) and others around a publishing model (like Myspace or Twitter). As the social networks all compete to offer similar features, the sharp lines between the models get very blurred.

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How I stopped loving Twitter and embraced Facebook

Maybe this post is for geeks, but perhaps not. Twitter is a social networking site that allows you to send and receive short messages to your friends. Facebook, I’m sure you’ve heard of. Twitter is much trendier, much more elite, than Facebook, but I’ve pretty much given it up these days. According to Tom Reynolds, I probably shouldn’t admit this, or I will be shunned by the cool kids. However, I feel that I should explain.

I joined up to Twitter reasonably early on for an Australian, starting in March 2007. I wasn’t a huge user – perhaps posting about once a week. But I was there for the first meet-up of the Melbourne Twitter Underground Brigade in June 2007. These days Twitter is pretty big, with some people estimating about 5 million users, even the PM has been seen to use Twitter, and there are some pretty good features that it supports:

  • You can create an alias for people to message you on. You can give out this alias, rather than a “real” identifier for messaging (such as your email address), to protect your privacy a bit.
  • You can set up the alias to deliver messages to you in the form that you want, without the sender having to know anything about it. You can receive messages as emails, IMs or SMS, for example. And reply back in that form as well.
  • You can send messages to all your friends in one go. This is something that is not easily done with SMS, for example, without paying a fair bit of money, e.g. four times as much for four friends, etc.
  • You can publish messages so that anyone can come along later and read all the messages you sent out (and potentially join up as your friend).
  • It was extremely low cost (you only paid to send SMSs, in Australia at least, while all the messages you received were free).

Aside from the publishing aspect, which is rather interesting, these were all things that it’s been known for a long time that people like. No wonder Twitter was successful. I found it an easy way to keep abreast of my friends’ moods and activities. Australians were the sixth largest user of Twitter via SMS.

However, then in August last year, Twitter stopped delivering SMS to anyone outside of North America and India. They had to do this, because it cost them a lot of money to send all those SMS messages, and they weren’t getting any commissions from the mobile operators outside of those regions. Since SMS was the main way I used Twitter, it pretty much cut me off.

Serendipitously, Facebook was undergoing a redesign around the same time. The new design was clearly influenced by the success of Twitter and the status update field and feeds of friends status updates now appeared prominently.

My friends around the world have been gradually appearing on Facebook. Even those who don’t do geeky things. Even my parents. But where Twitter was like an open field where all were welcome to gather and communicate, Facebook is like a gated community or a private club – you are only welcome if you’ve been invited. Philosophically this is something I really hate. Sure, I like my privacy, but I don’t want to feel like I’m locked away. I don’t walk down the street hidden under a shroud, and I don’t think I need to be treated that way online. I occasionally blog. I post my photos to Flickr.

That said, I was forced onto Facebook in order to communicate with my friends who were using it to communicate with me. If I wanted to see their photos, they were on Facebook. If I wanted to see their mood or hear about their activities, it was on Facebook.

What changed is I got an iPod Touch, and installed the Facebook application. It was almost like using Twitter again, except even more people that I like were on it.

One day, Twitter might sort out a way to make enough money to pay for those SMS messages, bring back the features I want, and somehow attract all my Facebook-loving friends onto it. But until then, I’m stuck with Facebook, and despite my initial reluctance to join in, I find myself using it more often than I ever used Twitter.