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Facebook = AOL 2.0?

By Disruption, TechnologyNo Comments

With today’s announcement from Facebook that they have embedded Skype’s video¬† conferencing service, and the subsequent arrival of all my friends pictures on both left and right panels of my Facebook wall, and the beta launch of Google + I am moved to dust off an old blog post from my personal blog on the subject of the internet and how IMHO Facebook was taking us down the (walled) garden path.

Useful as a history lesson perhaps, or a check on my powers of prediction ūüėČ

Old post begins here…

As some would know, I recently dived back into the seething biomass known as Facebook. I’d abandoned the service (committing ‘Facebookicide’) in 2008, after being stalked by one too many lesbians from Queensland to be their latest collected trophy-friend (me, a trophy?).

From where I sat, it appeared to be a massive online home for the bewildered.

Lured back into the water in 2010 by online community guru @venessapaech and the Lonely Planet strategic thinkers, I am amazed to see how it has grown. So much so, that my initial conclusion is that we are now dealing with a serious platform leap from college dorm to a new core of the internet – and another prime example of the tension between different perspectives on the web as a democratic platform, versus a closed, proprietary commercial network.

There has always been someone who attempted to dominate the shabby collection of servers, wires and users we call the internet. Its not surprising – human history is peppered with rising and falling empires, and this new digital land grab is much the same. If you’ll pardon the quality of the research, here’ s my potted view of the history of that race between the open and closed camps. As always, Wikipedia is a better historian than I’ll ever be, so many links go to them!

ARPAnet (1958 – 1988): apparently originally inspired in the Cold War period (in particular Sputnik’s shock factor in the technology race), this loose confederation of military and academic servers and connections was the seed of the internet and the classic ‘closed’ network.

Minitel (1982): ultimately nearly 25m French people were connected to Minitel, a governmental postal/telecom collaboration to supply citizens with access via a terminal to information directories, booking services, message boards, stock prices and chat services. The network was tightly managed and closed to anything not endorsed by the state – a position the owners far too long into the life of the internet as it developed in the 1990s. That said, the announcement it would be finally killed off in 2009 was met with public outcry – and still 1m banking transactions a month are done on the historic terminals.

AOL (1983): the first major money making walled garden on the internet in the English speaking world, founded on online games and communities (including popularising chat on the internet with ICQ), rising to 30m users over the next 20 years then famously blowing it all in a merger with Time Warner in 2001. Who could forget the rain-storm of direct marketed CD-ROMs that came in fancy tins and packages tempting you onto their network? And once you were in, they had you under their control. Most AOL users right through the 1990s thought AOL was the internet, holus-bolus.

The actual Internet (1988): the year the military and the commercial networkers joined up, including emerging private sector networks Compuserve, UUNet, PSINet, CERFNET, and Usenet. Still a bunch of list servers, technical people and a minimum number of tools to connect people without IT degrees or an interest in ham radio.

World Wide Web (1991): with the term coined by CERN’s Tim Berners-Lee, this was a layer on top of the internet that enabled sharing of resources beyond the list and text heavy document and email platform. It was classicly ‘open’ – anarchic in some ways with the emphasis on interconnection to make the world a better place through sharing.

The web caused a boom in browser software (and with Netscape Navigator in 1994 the beginning of the get rich quick internet startup decade), the lens you needed to see everything that was out there, no matter who or where it was served. Unless perhaps you live in China or the new Australia.

MSN (1995): Microsoft famously ‘got the web’ in the mid-90s, and MSN was their attempt at a walled garden, which basically proved they did not get the web at all. Their ongoing efforts to keep people within their domain included Hotmail, Messenger, MSN Explorer, and to some extent Internet Explorer as a non-standard browser. MSN has around 10m members today (note: fact to be checked), and has morphed into Windows Live as Microsoft’s attempt to stay relevant to a generation of users that prefer to Google, Twitter and Facebook.

Broadband WWW (c2005): without doubt the expansion of high speed wiring to the many nodes of the internet changed the game, and saw the emergence of traditional media players showing video, images and enabling collaboration and sharing in ways that dialup constrained.

Mobile WWW (c2008): 3G wireless in wide supply and a new generation of intelligent phone handsets once again changed the nature of the internet, initially slowing some things down but causing simplification and refocus about what it meant to be connected 24 x 7 x 365. Without doubt the earlier incarnations of the wireless web contributed to the acceleration of internet users to an estimated 1.6b in 2009.

Facebook (September 2006): starting small and purposeful, this College white pages site has emerged as a global player, with enough functionality and interconnectivity to keep an ‘internet’ user within it’s 4 walls for hours a day. On its way to a self-professed 1 billion members by 2012, it already has 400m members across the world and 200m highly active contributors. <editor’s note: today’s claim a year later is 750m members>

Remember it took the internet 2 decades to get 1b members!

The combination of Facebook’s fast-growing community plus hardwiring to platforms like iTunes and news media (via Facebook Connect) is further enhancing the rush back to a new type of walled garden. My beloved iPhone is a simple example – Facebook actually wraps an unbranded Safari browser for links external to Facebook, and I am rarely more than 1 button away from my news stream.

At the same time, people are searching, chatting, messaging, piping in their Twitter streams, their Youtube favourites, their Amazon book reviews and their Flickr photo collections. And spending on average 6.5 hours a day connected to the site. Soon there will be word processing, spreadsheets and proper search, and your homepage on Firefox or Chrome will be

Advertisers on TV and the web are starting to end their 30 second commercials with ‘See us on Facebook’ rather than making us remember their torturous URL or go to a site generation Y probably can’t even use because of its overdesigned 1990s based navigation and complexity. Businesses are starting to consider internal Facebook networks to replace Microsoft’s 20 year old Outlook email and messaging, and a growing number of tools like Yammer are emerging to fill the gaps.

Now, the traditional website concept is unlikely to go away, and no doubt history will show that something succeeds Facebook. But for many people, Facebook will be the new AOL – you can check out, but you can never leave.

Call me a hippy, but I think I liked the Tim Berners-Lee vision better.

Great Agile Workspaces: Multitasking and Distractions

By UncategorizedNo Comments

A very basic agile workspace - high knowledge sharing, but high potential for interruption.

We tell ourselves lies about our ability to multitask and handle distractions, especially the younger generations.  Things like, oh kids these days have grown up with all that technology, their brains are wired differently as they chat, watch youtube and do their home work.  Our instinctive behaviours remind us that our brain rejects distraction. For instance, to really zero in on a faint sound in the distance we instinctively stop moving, shut our eyes, and focus entirely on listening carefully. Your brain does not multitask when it’s time to really pay attention.

I’ll often work from home when I’ve got something hard I need to just get done, it’s quiet and nobody can interrupt me (obviously if your home is full of kids, dogs and noise this need not apply to you). ¬†How often have you said ¬†or heard something like this ? “I come in early because that’s the best hour of the day” or perhaps “I come in late and stay back to get my work done” or simply, “I don’t come into the office when I’ve got real work to do”?

Email, Facebook, Twitter, Instant Messanger etc…

Donald Knuth has a wonderful webpage on his Stanford faculty webpage about email – this is my favourite section.

“Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration. I try to learn certain areas of computer science exhaustively; then I try to digest that knowledge into a form that is accessible to people who don’t have time for such study.”

He goes on to describe how he likes to communicate in batch mode, once every three months. ¬†Three months might be a little too long for most of us, but do we really need to check our email every three minutes ? ¬†Come on, hands up if you click the send/receive button sometimes, even when your email checks every minute by default. ¬†Facebook, Twitter, Instant messenger and pretty much all forms of electronic communication can be a major distraction if we as users of them don’t manage and mitigate it. ¬†If you need to focus, turn them all off. ¬†Don’t be tempted to just ‘check in’ or you risk losing short term focus or worse, ending up chasing a tangent to the task you really ought to be focused on.

There is a culture in some workplaces of needing to be always online, in a chat room or IM, instantly available to solve problems.  When there is genuinely an urgent problem Рthese systems work really well Рbut they command a high price in productivity, especially for developers.

Alistair Cockburn on Drafts

Alistair Cockburn has a great explanation in “Communicating, cooperating teams” to describe unwanted distractions created by co-workers in the office environment – Drafts.

“On the other side of their bank of cubicles sat the call center people, who answered questions on the phone all day. They also benefited from overhearing each other. But, and here was the bad part, the conversation of the call center people would (in his words) ‚Äúwash over the walls to the programmers‚Äô area.‚ÄĚ There was a ‚Äúdraft‚ÄĚ of unwanted information coming from that area.”

Beyond the nodes and contracts problems of large teams and large open workspaces, distracting drafts from other teams working near yours can be a major productivity drain. You only need to walk around an office, stand and listen to figure out if you have this problem. ¬†If you can hear more than one or two simultaneous conversations at any stage, I think you’ve got a problem to solve.

The Winter of our Disconnect

A book about a single mum and her kids in Perth turning off all the screens in their house for 6 months might seem like an unusual place to find an epiphany, but that’s what happened to me.

Susan Maushart’s book, the Winter of our Disconnect is part diary, part drama and part scientific journal on the topic of distraction. ¬†The stories of how addicted she and her kids are to being constantly connected, socially up-to date and online provides an uncomfortable mirror to most of our own lives. ¬†Please buy a copy and read it. ¬†It challenged some of my beliefs and cause me to face up to some deeper truths which I think I already knew were true about the cost of multitasking and distraction on the ability of our brains to perform. ¬†Seriously, just buy it and read it.

Ultimately there are three kinds of distractions

Necessary ones – communication by definition requires some level of distraction from our deep cognitive tasks. ¬†But … it’s also essential that we talk, design and work together to function as effective teams. ¬†So while we should be sensitive to others when we do distract them, we shouldn’t shy away from it.

Self inflicted ones РEmail, Twitter, Facebook, instant messenger and the telephone.  These are all things we can choose to turn off, ignore or just not have the first place.

Unnecessary ones – Cockburn’s Drafts, ¬†music, selfish co-workers and poor environments all generate distractions which don’t add value.

Focus on having the best necessary distractions and eliminating as many of the self inflicted and unnecessary distractions from your work environment.  Finally, Conclusions.

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