Social, streams, channels, apps. All ripe for binning.


During the mid-90s some of the most advanced thinking in computing and “hypermedia” (I know! Can you honestly believe it was called that?) was about intelligent agents making your life better for you by knowing your every preference. These agents – the most infamous and universally despised of which was Microsoft’s Clippy – would appear on screens greeting you by name, asking you how your day was going and somehow raiding your every thought for your next Google Search. Except Google hadn’t been invented then. It was AltaVista, or whatever.

Anyway, it is either very exciting or slightly ironic that now all of this is coming to pass. Suddenly business is taking notice that “markets are conversations“, or that you need to interact with things using, like, your voice.

I am Anti-Mac

But in amongst Google privacy angst, one thing that has not changed though is the desktop / apps / messages metaphor. In 1996 – >15 yrs ago! – Don Gentner and Jakob Neilson published a paper about the Anti-Mac interface. It was an rather academic look at what a computer interface would look like if you inverted everything that the Mac interface was about.

Mac Anti-Mac
Metaphors Reality
Direct Manipulation Delegation
See and Point Describe and Command
Consistency Diversity
WYSIWYG Represent Meaning
User Control Shared Control
Feedback and Dialog System Handles Details
Forgiveness Model User Actions
Aesthetic Integrity Graphic Variety
Modelessness Richer Cues

There’s more detail on Jakob’s site, but I have recently been reflecting that it is remarkable that almost 20 years since the Mac took off, we are still using a computing paradigm that relies on Windows Icons Menus Pointer (or WIMP) as the basic means of interaction.

Mobile? Doesn’t change anything!

Over the last 12 months or so of course everybody is saying that mobile and tablet are the new thing we should all be concerned with. But are they really that different? OK, a few nice gestures may make things feel a lot more ‘Minority Report‘, and the concept of syncing across devices adds a new dimension, but do these new technologies really have any concept of meaning?

A while back I was at a Google event and put this train of thought to a very nice lady who works on Google Apps. She slightly missed my point and highlighted the benefit of GApps ability to finish work on one device, pick it up on another while at the same time collaborate on it with colleagues.

But the GApps interface doesn’t have a clue what you’re writing about. It organises your content into Documents, much as a desktop OS does. Or you have to organise your content yourself, and make your own connections between concepts, so really GApps doesn’t make things much easier than a filing cabinet would in real life.

Power in the network is dependant on active participants

Elsewhere, Microsoft and others are pinning their hopes in a big way on Enterprise Social Networking. Earlier this year, the Redmond giant shelled out $1.2bn on Yammer – one of the fastest growing apps in this space. [Full disclosure – we’re a paying customer of Yammer at work]. 

Overall I’m optimistic about social media for the enterprise. But the concept is only at stage one. When you start using Yammer and co at work, you add another strand of communication to personal social media channels, email, phone, meetings, and so on that we all have to deal with and manage proactively.

There are two developments that I think are now the next wave of productivity before the coming apocalypse. I think they will effectively spell the beginning of the end for our current paradigm of social, streams, channels and apps.

1. Intelligent agents

There is a pressing need for software to take away the pain and stress associated with the rhythmic checking required to keep up with all the different streams of information people should be engaged with if they are to be successful as ‘knowledge workers’ in today’s work culture.

By integrating these strands into a more personalised service, that somehow negotiates the privacy issues and helps to prioritise what is important now as well as predicting what will be important tomorrow, this software will help us to become more effective.

But I don’t believe this is just a software problem to solve. 

2. Intelligent humans

I suggest that most people (I include myself in this) lack the wherewithall to manage these streams and networks effectively. If Human Resources departments and educational bodies recognise that humans’ relationship to information in the networked society will separate the capable and empowered from the powerless and inept, I think that will be a giant step forward.

Most modern parents marvel at the way that their toddlers pick up laptops or iPads and get to grips with them quickly. This is not surprising at all or worrying in the slightest to me. What is more worrying is that leaders in our most powerful organisations do not understand what this change means – so they can’t equip our ever-ageing society with the skills required to participate.

If intelligent agents do take off, then the humans that operate them will need the wherewithall to understand what the agents are doing on their behalf. Otherwise we could be heading towards a very dystopian world.

But at least that world will not be talking about social media any more.


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