This past fall, my wife and I were at a youth group meeting with my kids trying to organize a Halloween party. They discussed the theme they wanted for this year’s “Haunted Hallway”—a mini-haunted house for the younger kids—and then turned their attention to how to coordinate the follow-up communication for planning… everyone was stumped.
Most of the kids used text messaging (SMS), but SMS is best for short messages and difficult for large group discussions. Several of the kids were not on Facebook and even more refused to use Facebook messenger. Most had a Google account but never used Google Hangouts. And of course, all of them had email accounts that they never checked.
They were at an impasse, and eventually, the group leaders simply said that they would call everybody individually with news, which is both unreliable and time-consuming. That’s how we used to do things in the 1980s, for crying out loud. Here we sit with the greatest advance in human communication technology for “many-to-many,” and we are still having to resort to using slow and inefficient one-to-one methods.
Too Many Channels, Not Enough Filters
It hit me like Ichabod Crane being broadsided by the Headless Horseman’s pumpkin: Despite the intent to make communication easier with the Internet, staying in contact is getting harder. Everyone has one or two niche services they are using to talk to their friends, but the universal messaging system is nonexistent.
On the face of it, with the technology we have, it would seem that we have never been in better contact with each other. Roughly nine-in-ten American adults (92 percent) own a mobile phone of some kind 68% of U.S. adults have a smartphone—up from 35% in 2011 and tablet computer ownership has edged up to 45% among U.S. adults.
There are so many real-time ways to stay in contact—email, instant messaging, social media—but none of them work with each other.
And then there’s the other side of the problem: archives. I recently remembered that I needed to follow up on a conversation I had had last fall about speaking at a conference this spring. However, I couldn’t for the life of me remember whether I had the conversation in email, SMS, Google Hangouts, Facebook Messenger, or Skype. I spent about 15 minutes searching through these different channels, trying to remember who I had the conversation with and exactly when, before I finally pieced it together and found the conversation on Facebook Messenger last November. This happens to me regularly, and I’m sure I’m not alone.
When did things begin to fall apart?
In the late 2000s when I was the Creative Director for AOL RED, we conducted a study of communication habits for teens and found something startling: very few of them used email to talk to each other. email was something they used to talk to their parents and teachers, but not to each other. At the time, everyone was using AOL’s AIM (a one-to-one messenger) to talk to each other, with SMS on the rise. We were watching that trend closely, but since they were using our product to replace email, we didn’t sound the alarm. However, I left AOL in 2009, so I didn’t witness when youth turned away from AIM. I don’t know what type of deck-chair-shuffling went on when AOL realized they were losing their key demographic, but I know that I never hear any teens talking about using AIM to talk to friends anymore. Teens moved on, and so did the world.
Now, kids use a combination of Tumblr, SMS, MMS, iMessage, KIK, Google Hangouts, Facebook Messenger, Snapchat, Slack, Skype, FaceTime, and dozens of other instant messaging, audio, and video systems, few of which, if any, can talk to each other.
Notice I didn’t mention email. Today’s kids are even more reluctant to use email.
According to PEW, 71 percent of teens use more than one social network site, but there is no clear instant messaging top dog anymore. While a lot of kids (but not all) have Facebook accounts, they do not necessarily check them regularly and many do not trust Facebook Messenger because of the worry about privacy.
Email is Broken
Despite valiant efforts by Google to create better email applications, the fact is that a single company alone cannot save email because not everyone uses their application. I have heard many stories of managers who are so overloaded with the number of emails that they have to sift through each day, they begin to lose important or even only modestly-important communications in the maelstrom. More and more, professionals turn to some IM platform, but which one?
Instant Messaging is Broken
I have four different instant messaging systems at work that I have to monitor depending on the client: Slack, Hipchat, Lync, and GroupMe. This does not even include my personal Google Hangouts, iMessage, Facebook Messenger, AIM, or SMS. They are all excellent systems, but they do essentially the same things, just in slightly different ways.
Social Media is Broken
Are you on FaceBook? So am I. Are you on Google+? I am, but don’t check it nearly as often because there are fewer people I know on it. But my son is on it all the time in a thriving community centered on one of his favorite games. Are you on Twitter? Tumblr? LinkedIn? Instagram?… Ello? Okay, probably not.
So, to be social with my friends, I have to choose the service that most of them use. And if one of my friends isn’t on my social media service of choice? Generally, I have less and less contact with that person depending on how often I use that social media service.
A New App Won’t Fix the Problem
What won’t fix the problem is a new app or a new API or a new service. There have been some valiant efforts from many notable companies, including large companies like Google and small companies like Spark. But these apps will only work to fix the problem if everyone uses them, and there is no universal IM app to make Google Hangouts or Skype work together. Instead, you have to have all of them available or risk not being able to talk to someone.
There are a few universal IM apps out there, like Trillion and Adium, but they generally are only for the most popular systems—ignoring the niche channels—and do not include voice or video communication.
Imagine if mobile phones worked like this: I have one phone to talk to people on AT&T, another for Virgin Media, and a third for T-mobile friends. And what about all the smaller carriers? I might need more than a dozen phones. This is no way to communicate.
Standards Might Fix the Problem
So, we live in a world where everyone has a different way to talk to everybody else. Just yesterday, I tried to talk to a friend of mine on Google Hangouts. He wasn’t on there but did pop up on Facebook Messenger eventually. We wasted about ten minutes just trying to find the channel we could agree on to video conference. If only Google Talk could have found him on Facebook Messenger we could have saved a lot of time. As a user, I’m a lot less concerned with who is pushing my data back and forth and a lot more concerned with talking to the person I want to talk to.
Impossible, you say? Their technologies are just too different, you say? Not so, says Dominique Hazael-Massieux of the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Real-Time Communications Working Group (the people tasked with setting these standards). “Most of the standardized bricks to enable federation of these various communications channels exist,” he said.
That’s right: the ability to make the system interoperable is there, but the will is not. “The main reason that federation hasn’t happened is because the operators of these services and products seem to have made the business decision to not allow for that federation,” he noted. We have to suffer constantly searching for communication channels, keeping two, three, five , or more apps just to talk to our friends, colleagues, and family, and maybe not talking to someone at all if we don’t have the right app.
So, what do you do?
Quite frankly, I’m not sure. This is worse than the Great Browser Wars of the 1990s. At least then all of the browsers were paying lip-service to comply with the same standards. Eventually, the standards won out, for the most part, meaning that today you can choose the browser you want—Safari, Chrome, Firefox, Opera, Internet Explorer — with little fear that you will not be able to access a particular website.
For real-time communication, though, we are wasting time searching for the right channel to talk to somebody, which is bad for you and bad for me. Unless all of the players agree to — or are forced to—become interoperable, I’m afraid we are stuck with this situation.
Until then, anyone want to chat with me on Ello?
A version of this post was originally published on the author’s Medium blog and is republished here with permission.
Photo credit: Pixabay