January 17, 2013

Chatter through history...

Hi fellow architects and other readers,

Over the coming period I will make an effort to post weekly an article on communication in the digital realm and its implication on architecture and the role of an architect.
The articles will be diverse in terms of tone, topic and angle. This time it is all about me as a user staying in touch with the rest of the world, or at least my world, in the digital realm.
The means of communication between two or more people over the last 20 years has changed significantly. The rise of the mobile phone has changed the way we stay in touch as well as the ubiquity of the Internet. We see people dropping their landlines in favor of their mobile phone and the good old analog letter is loosing ground to emails. Even faxes are not that common anymore. I can't remember the last time I send a fax other than to keep my online fax number alive.
With the advent of social media, the way we are communicating is even further changing. All of a sudden everybody is an author and a publisher. Blogging, tweeting, Facebooking, all are relatively new ways of staying in touch with each other.

In this post I am touching on the topic of chatting, the more or less synchronous way of communicating in the digital world.

Here's a short history of my chat experience.

It's 1993, I'm an intern at the Turing Institute in Glasgow and sending emails back and forth with a friend of mine in Amsterdam. It's like chatting, mails are delivered within minutes. Meanwhile my girlfriend and I are sending letters back and for the, on a weekly basis, because it takes that long to send a letter to her and receive her answer back.

It's 1997 and I just started using ICQ, the only real chat program for those that are not on Yahoo Messenger. All of my friends are on ICQ and there is no point in even checking out Yahoo's competitor as I don't have any friends on Yahoo.

It's 1999 and I started using MSN Messenger, but why? It's functionality is limited and none of my friends are on it. Only 1or 2 colleagues are on it and I don't see a reason why I would chat with them after work. ICQ still rules, there's no reason at all to even check out any competition.

It's 2000 and I'm still only on ICQ, I've got some new friends I never met. One girl from Singapore and a guy from Beijing. Their English is pretty good and we chat a lot. My fiancée and I are mainly sending emails, 6 hours time difference is awkward when chatting. At this point in time I'm getting used to synchronous (chatting) and asynchronous communication (email) in the digital realm. What I find is that the casual communication is through chatting, the more comprehensive interaction is by email. Emails are back to being letters and chats are like being talking with friends about nothing in particular, is if being in a cafe.

2001, MS Messenger is added to my list of chat programs used on regular basis, mainly because more and more of the people I meet are on it. Including my dad. Why? I wonder aren't they using ICQ, it's so much easier in use, less resource hungry and more feature rich. There's no real reason I can think of at first, but then it dawns on me, it's the sign-up procedure and the identification of users once you use the program. MS Messenger issuing your hotmail account for sign-up and so, those that have Hotmail don't have to sign up. And you can find people by searching for their Hotmail email address. It's unique. Gone are the days of looking for that one specific "John Smith" on ICQ. I'm starting to use Trillian, a chat federation program, it allows you to use one program for all your chat buddies. You can't chat across services, but now I only have to run one program instead of two. I also had a Yahoo account, because I had some friends on Yahoo as well.
Because of the ubiquity of Windows I am loosing more and more friends on ICQ as they are migrating to MS Messenger because their friends are on it as well.

In 2002 I have my first foray into social media... Really intentionally that is, as I become part of an online community with friends all over the globe. By means of Xbox Live. Back are the days of Roger Wilco, but now I'm playing and chatting with people from all over the world, people I've never met, I don't even know their age or gender or anything else.

In 2003 I stop installing ICQ on my new laptop. I'm now only on MS Messenger and there's a new kid in town; Skype. It's VoIP, so calling people via the Internet. Not my first VoIP experience though. In 1997 my buddies and I were using a small little program called Roger Wilco to talk to each other while playing Forsaken. It was a pretty good quality and had this authentic walky-talky feel to it, including the noise. At that time we are playing almost on daily basis Forsaken and Half Life. Across the Internet, talking to each other via Roger Wilco. It took some time to sync, so we used the normal phone for that, but once set up, it worked. Now there's Skype, it's 2003 when I first use it, I think. All my friends are on Skype as well, and Skype has a chat option as well. Hardly anybody is using the chat option, we still use MS Messenger, I don't know why. But I find that I'm hearing the voices of my friends significantly more often due to Skype.

Over the years since 2003, I find myself use Messenger less and less and I'm back on actually talking. Through Skype when at home as I spend significant time behind my PC and on my mobile phone otherwise. I also spend more time with my friends in the real world. I was never really a 2nd Life adept. The interesting part is that my land-line is there because it is still more expensive to call mobile numbers than land lines, so I keep it around to facilitate mainly my parents and parents in law. The land line is mainly used by people to call my wife, so I don't pick up when it rings. Answering machine does a better job at taking a message than I do anyway.

Fast forward to 2010. The biggest impact on the way I'm communicating with people happens in this year. I register for Twitter and Facebook. Note that until than I am still chatting occasionally using Skype and Messenger. I find that Skypenis more convenient when my friend has Skype as well, because when we get tired of typing we can VoIP. I believe Messenger had a VoIP option as well, but I never got around to use it.
In 2010 I left the community I lived in behind me to work abroad. My family and friends stayed behind so communication turned out to be even more important. Low cost VoIP through Skype allowed me to stay in touch with my family and even see them through the video conference functionality. Email was initially the chosen way to stay in touch with others. That changed into blogging pretty fast. I already registered on Facebook and Twitter before I left for Egypt, but while in Egypt I found the value of both really obvious.

Twitter is now my preferred way of contacting a company's customer service department. Especially KLM is very well equipped to handle my inquiries through Twitter. I guess they have a pretty sophisticated CRM system and a pretty good tool to skim all of the million tweets send every second. Random tweets about my flight experiences are replied on randomly when it concerns KLM, but inquiries or cries for help are always picked up and answered. KLM's way of using Twitter to help their customers is exemplary for how social media can fit in a business model. The DM option in Twitter, a way of chatting privately is used extensively between KLM and me to exchange more sensitive data like my ticket-number when trying to reschedule a flight.

I actually use Twitter's DM every now and then when sending a link to my wife to check out a new piece of designer furniture we might buy or a new project on that seems investing. But I only use Twitter's DM function for this, because I want to send my wife and just my wife a link or other piece of information while I'm on my laptop or iPad. More on that later.

The other 800 pound gorilla in social media is Facebook. I believe I registered in 2009, might be 2010, just to see what all the fuss was about. Facebook turned out for me to be the way to find long lost friends and get back in touch with them and to stay in close(r) contact with my friends.
Ever since I actively stated using Facebook I feel that I am more awae of what's happening with those friends that you don't see often enough to be able to keep tabs on what's going on in their lives but you would like to. And the other way around, it allows me to update those around me to be updated on what goes on in my life. Facebook works perfectly in this regard, unless, of course, your friends are not on Facebook. As it turns out, I tend to loose touch with some of my friends because they're not active on Facebook, but only a few. Others I revert back to alternatives, like chatting and Skype. I guess this is natural selection.

For your information I don't have accounts on any other social media site like Facebook other than Google+. Google+ is dormant in my case though. I don't see the added value of Google+ over Facebook, and it takes two much time to be active on both. I do have an account on, Microsoft's social search experiment, but I'm not using it. Bing is connected to Facebook in my case, but I haven't seen the benefits of this yet.

But this post was going to be about chatting.

Like stated before, I've resolved to only using Skype.... Well actually this is not accurate. Three years ago I got a BlackBerry from my employer and with it BBM, BlackBerryMessenger. A free chat app for BlackBerry owners, one of the reasons by BlackBerry did very well with teenagers. It was way cheaper then sending SMS messages. Most of my friends were on BBM if on a chat system at all. Chatting for me was still on Skype, as I had ditched MS Messenger completely after moving to Egypt. I stated Tweeting a lot, and started DM'ing on Twitter as a means of chatting. It's a poor mans chat.

Then came Whatsapp the revolutionary cross-platform chat application, totally free. But only on mobiles. That's why I'm using Twitter's DM to send my wife a link when on my laptop or iPad. Because I can't copy-paste the link into Whatsapp and send it to her that way. And she doesn't read her email regularly enough to be effective.

There are currently many alternatives for Whatsapp that do the same, but there is no compelling reason to switch, they don't have a game changing feature that will not only make me switch, but more importantly my friends as well. Because if only I switch over to another app, it's only me that will be talking, nobody listening.

There are two alternatives that might be viable as they are ubiquitous like Whatsapp and this is Twitter's DM, but it's too cumbersome to use and the 140 character limit is killing for chatting. The other one is Facebook's chat function. And really I don't know why it's not overtaking Whatsapp. Well actually I do; it's not a serious feature of Facebook. On the website it's this little corner of the screen that's a nuisance when you're reading your newsfeed. On mobile devices it's hidden somewhere in the Facebook client.
Maybe Skype can take over from Whatsapp, but not just now. It would need a better integration on the mobile platform's environment.

What Whatsapp has done right is that it filled a niche with an adequate product, gained critical mass to become the 800 pound gorilla in terms of market share and stuck with what it does, no unnecessary features that divert the user from what he wants to do in the first place. But they are very much mobile centric. Authentication when signing up is by having an SMS sent to the mobile phone you're installing it one and the app verifies that it receives the SMS. This binds Whatsapp to the mobile number, not the user. It also limits the use to devices that can send and receive SMS's.
For me this is a nuisance as I have two mobiles, with each their own number and when my wife wants to send a Whatsapp message she doesn't know which one to send it to. To get around this, I created a group with her and my two mobile numbers. We send our messages from and to the group, to ensure I get all her messages. Downside, I also get all of my own messages. Whatsapp is an alternative to texting, not chatting. But since we started using SMS as a chat medium, an expensive one, Whatsapp managed to capture our hearts and our mobile phones.
Meanwhile I'm using mainly Whatsapp, Skype for those that are not my friend on FB and FB Messenger whenever somebody contacts me using FB and Twitter when I need t send a link or text to my wife while not on my mobile, or I need to copy something.

So what are you using to chat with people and why? Let me know through the comments.

Promise, I'll make it clear why I posted on chatting and chat programs and touched on social media in future posts in this series.