Opinion: The Future of Social Messaging

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Future of Social MessagingChad Lorenz from Slate had an interesting piece on Slate today about how e-mail is on the verge of dying among Gen Y with the birth, ‘replacement,’ and mainstreamization of newer social messaging tools — SMS/texting, IMing, Facebooking, Powncing, Twittering, the deal. I’m not sure anyone could argue with his point, but this is one area I’ve been thinking a lot about over the last few weeks so I figured I might as well spend some time laying off some of my thoughts while the topic is hot and happening over at Techmeme. Rather than focusing on the death of e-mail with the newer generation, however, I’ll spend some time talking about and describing something that interests me more personally as an entrepreneur, technologist and opportunity seeker.

So, first things first. What first got me into this topic and has most struck me about the way social messaging has taken form, is that it’s all so damn new — it’s hard to imagine all of these tools, utilities, and apps are babies of the 21st century. Never before has a communication medium taken rise and ‘changed the world’ in such short timeframe. Whether you look at the telephone, the Internet, TV, Radio, or even the Newspaper, it’s taken decades for such mediums to form and come to mainstream popularity. It’s a very different case to what we’ve seen develop with social messaging over the last seven years.

Ten years ago, not many people would have known what texting or SMS messaging is. The capability existed, but the market, the penetration, the public knowledge of such a technology didn’t. Now, if you go anywhere in Asia and Europe, everyone who has a social life will tell you they use it all the time — and they’re not lieing. A true story: in my visit to India last year, I was amazed when I my taxi driver took me at mid-point of my destination, whipped out his brand new Nokia N90 (putting my then-owned Sony Ericsson W810i to shame), and used it to communicate with another taxi driver — his friend — who then approached us, made me switch cabs, and finished the job by dropping me to my end location. They’d sorted out some kind of a system where they split the revenue and ‘cover’ respective areas, using their cell phones to stay in touch. But here’s the kicker: he didn’t call the other driver, he used his phone to SMS his location/meeting point at a traffic signal. Impressive for someone who was most probably illiterate and couldn’t speak a word of English, don’t you think?

Google Talk Five years ago, ICQ and Yahoo! Messenger dominated the Instant Messaging landscape. Google Talk didn’t exist back then. AIM and MSN, at least in my locality/circle of friends, were close to unheard of. Today, I don’t use anything but Google Talk, where I have nearly 30 people on my friends list now whom I stay in constant touch with — safe to say they run my virtual social conversational life. I keep in constant touch with my business colleagues and my grandmother, who lives in Nagpur, India and whom I somehow successfully managed to teach how to use Gmail, uses it to drop a couple lines every so often to keep me posted on the latest changes she’s done to her porch (last I heard, she was getting lights et al setup for Christmas and a couple dozen pots put into place, just FYI.) Not only has the IM phenomenon emerged so quickly, it’s changed and with the mainstream power of Google (at least in mine and my relatives’ lives), brought in together a new audience. I don’t think my grandma would know how to login with her ICQ number or start up AIM, but she sure knows how to use Gmail to check her e-mail, which has the best integrated web chat ever, and she doesn’t need to worry about anything other than clicking on the green-light beside my name and typing a few words.

FacebookAnd the rise and shift of IM brings me to my last point. Facebook. Pownce. Twitter. This is the latest emergence of anything we’ve been seeing lately. It’s hard, if not impossible to believe that these things, or at least a socially-acceptable market for them, almost didn’t exist six – eight months ago. These aren’t things my grandma or a random taxi driver would use today, but I really think it’s as convergence takes place and cell phones get easier, better access to the Internet and applications, these are most likely the IMs and SMSs of tomorrow. Who could have envisioned months ago that I’d be writing on friends’ Walls, sending them $1 virtual gifts, drawing on their Graffiti, shouting pointless 140 chars-or-less comments about the latest episode of South Park, or asking which movie I should go see this weekend? I think tools like these are the start of a cultural change. As we strive to become a more fast-paced, socially mass-acquainted, “broadcasting” society, these things are just the tip of a bigger iceberg. And I have no trouble in envisioning a world where, like SMS and IM, such tools are tapped by the mainstream. No, not the mainstream Internet crowd, but the mainstream mainstream.

Does this mean I’ll see a taxi driver on Facebook writing on another’s wall when I next visit India? No. Will my grandmother be twittering her porch updates? No. What I mean, and for anyone who’s noticed I’ve tried to present as a hidden message through this piece, is that true technology finds its own uses. Case-in-point: it’s 1991, a bunch of smart engineers are trying to figure out how to make the SMS protocol work, and I tell you about a taxi driver in India who could have potential use for this technology. Would you have linked the two together? Similarly, it’s 2006, and you’re a Google scientist is trying to think of ways to link the Jabber protocol with web-based Gmail. I tell you about my grandmother to whom such a service link-up would enable instant messaging to such an extent that it’d never been possible with another traditional IM utlity. Would you take me seriously or recommend that I introduce her to Meebo.com? The ubiquity of technology excites me: it can exist everywhere and fulfill a million objectives and peoples’ lives. The possibilities are endless. The best part for opportunity-seekers: we’re just at the tip of the ice-berg.