Narnach's blog

The thoughts of Wes "Narnach" Oldenbeuving

A possible future for web-based communication

My recent post on the Kings of code side event got too long, so I extracted the following into its own blog post. It is a collection of thoughts on a possible presentation topic.

People like to communicate with each other. Centuries ago we wrote letters and sent them with the merchants, hoping they would arive. The telegraph was a revolution: we could send a message faster, cheaper and with more certainty of delivery. The telephone was even more revolutionary: direct communication over a long distance.

In the age of the internet, change happens even faster. E-mail has been around for “ages”, just like various forms of chat services have come and gone.

Broadcasting has gone through a similar change. It started with spoken announcements; proclamations from the king. At some point there were pamphlets and posters. Books can be seen as a way to broadcast a message. Newspapers are a periodic form of broadcast. Radio enabled long-distance audio broadcasting without the cost of creating a physical carrier for the message. Television added moving images to radio.

Now we have the internet, where we go through similar stages.

Static, web 1.0, websites are pamplets re-invented. Old concepts in an electronic shape. Ebooks are electronic books. Newspapers try to put their content on their own websites, updating them daily to bring their news to the masses. E-mail newsletters just scream “newspaper” to me. Radio can be found as streaming audio.

As we have become more familiar with the internet and with an increased access through broadband, cable and fiber, we have started to innovate with the new medium. RSS changed the direction of broadcast from push to pull. youTube may have started as a way to share existing videos, but it has since grown to a place where anyone can make themselves heard. That is many to many communication.

The internet made interactivity a lot easier than in the off-line world. Web forums and UseNet allow groups of users to interact with each other through written messages. Blogs allow everyone to have their own newspaper column. Instead of an opinions page in the newspaper that is the internet, every writer gets their own column and they all respond and refer to each other’s writing.

Twitter is the latest thing. It is a hybrid between instant messaging, e-mail and RSS feeds. People say it does not scale, yet the Twitter engineers keep making it better and more and more people are able to use it. Is there a limit to which it can scale? Is its centralized server model not going to be an important limitation on both scale and freedom later on? When there are six billion people using one and the same service, relying on it for an important part of their daily communications, how much can you trust on one company to take care of it?

Would it not be better to turn it into a distributed service? It has sucessfully scaled e-mail, Jabber/XMPP, the telephone network and internet itself. E-mail, as a world-wide service, has never gone down, even if individual servers might go down from time to time.

Traditional media has its problems. Paper flyers, mail-delivered advertising and commercials on the radio and television are a few examples. The relatively high price of print media or traditional broadcasting limits the amount of these forms of advertising. This makes it somewhat bearable. In contrast, spam via e-mail, blog comments, web forum posts and instant messages have no such limitations. It’s virtually free to broadcast your message to a million people, so it happens a lot and people really don’t like it.

E-mail spam can happen because there is a near-zero cost or risk for the sender. The same goes for other on-line communication. It can be interesting to consider the friend-of-a-friend model, such as is seen on Linked In and other social networks?

To send a message to someone, the whole connection chain between sender and receiver must be known, no matter how long it is. If someone spams, it means there is a chain of real people connecting them to you. This means the sender is traceable instead of anonymous. If you flag a message as spam, the whole chain is notified that they were part of a spam chain. This means people can choose to ban the spammer from using them as a connection in sending a message. It also means you can identify people who act as a gateway for spammers to send messages to other people.

The nice thing about treating communication as a social network activity is that it makes people more aware that they are dealing with people. By taking anonymity out of the equation, it lowers the tendency of people to act like a Total Fuckwad when they think nobody is watching them.

Are there other ways to look at communication, to turn it upside-down and re-investigate how it works? What is going to be the next Twitter?