I can say with certainty that I’m not alone on this: my inbox has slowly, almost imperceptibly, switched from my primary source of communication to my least-used spam trap. Not even my parents generation is necessarily using email for much these days. Without realizing it, I’ve allowed my FaceBook account to be the de-facto means of communication in my life for all but the most specific of topics and recipients.
But this makes things very difficult, doesn’t it? For one, my entire communication circle is entirely under the banner of one company who can do whatever they like with it. That includes just plain screwing it up and making the service unavailable through some inadvertent “whoopsie.” Another problem is that I have really no means of auditing this type of communication: FaceBook keeps its own logs of wall posts, messages, comments and status updates to itself and I cannot backup my posts to my own private store. This is not the height of concern for those “I just ate bacon and it was good,” kind of status updates, but what about communication from really important sources?
Because, believe me, this type of communication can only grow more common and robust. We have a danger, in embracing the up-to-the-minute web, of losing what happened five minutes ago.
Alternative solutions which mimic the FaceBook system are being developed, of course. I suspect they’re being developed in one form or another just about everywhere. My company is looking to integrate such a system into an eCommerce website. Google Labs is developing Google Wave. Mozilla is looking to hit it big with Rain Drop. Such experiments and projects are inevitable whenever the meme of Internet communication changes in some way. I’m certainly starting to work new projects around the idea of FaceBook Connect logins as a gotta-have component; meanwhile, everything I build has at least some air of “Social Web” communication to it.
I’m not sure that any of these really hit the mark, though. Rain Drop, as it has been explained thus far, sounds like something akin to a Tweetdeck/Ping.fm hybrid. Google Wave looks interesting, but even with as much as communication has changed, I think it might be just a bridge too far for the majority of Internet users; the interface as it current exists is just too wonkish and geek-centric. Individual sites – both eCommerce sites like my company and service-based projects like I’m working on in my spare time – will inevitably include some very personal means of communication, but they hardly hope to replace email.
And the most distressing thing of all is that the one component lacking in these various systems is an open source protocol on which to build. What has to this point made email such a great option was largely the fact that the underlying system is an open protocol which can be and was adopted by myriad companies in their own ways. But an AOL user was never prevented from sharing information with a Juno user or a Hotmail user. As much as the good systems now include APIs to spread their influence, they don’t include open standards which allow free sharing across the networks.
Does anyone with influence step in to say something about this? Or have we sufficiently commercialized the Internet to the point where its foundations no longer matter? Open forum communication and status updates are a great feature of the modern Internet, but it will be a dark day when the primary means of communication becomes mired in proprietary warfare.