The changing face of communication online.
April 11, 2012
When we attended a talk about social networks a few months back, we knew younger users were more prominent on networks like Facebook, but just how much they relied on these networks didn’t occur to us. For example, when it came to internet communication, Generation X built their social contacts around e-mail, while today’s internet youth have effectively replaced e-mail with Facebook. That alone is an interesting discussion topic, for while social networks are often used by older users to retain contact with certain acquaintances, younger users have a much lower threshold for friending someone online. In other words, anyone who is worth even e-mailing is added as a friend, whether or not that person is connected to one of your existing real-world networks.
While the generational shift is noteworthy, we decided to look into how our own forms of online communication have changed.
Ten years ago.
Looking back at how we used the internet 10 years ago, we see a reliance on very different communication networks than today. These are the networks we used on a daily basis a decade ago:
- AOL Instant Messenger (AIM)
As we said earlier, e-mail was the great mainstay of our generation’s online communications center. Pretty much all intimate conversation with family was done via e-mail, and yet it also served for simple exchanges with people we didn’t have an intimate relationship with. Subscriptions to various mailing lists also served for prolonged discussions between many individuals, making e-mail the ultimate tool for talking to people we discovered elsewhere. In retrospect, perhaps that was e-mail’s greatest weakness: no way to discover new people to correspond with.
The trinity of real-time communication for us was ICQ/AIM/IRC. ICQ came first, and we kept it around for years if only because there were a few luddites we corresponded with who refused to pick up AIM. And as for AIM, well, everyone else had it because everyone else had America Online (AOL). In a lot of ways, AIM was yesteryears’s Facebook, in that it was a cluttered mess of contacts and ad hoc status updates via away messages. Whereas we were more likely to simply set ourself as “Away” in ICQ, AIM was our creative outlet for silly haiku status messages, quotes, and emo rants. We kept AIM around for longer than we should have because it was easier to integrate with iChat and iSight than to start a contact list from scratch, but it was also the most convenient form of communication. In college, for instance, we’d regularly check our AIM messages after getting out of bed, much as we imagine kids do today with their Facebook walls.
The third point of our chat-utility trinity was IRC, and pretty typically, we had it running alongside ICQ and AIM all the time. While we were able to group AIM contacts into categories, a good chunk of our online contacts were more readily available via IRC, and it was easier to contact them there than further clog up our AIM contacts list. More importantly, IRC is a more natural discovery tool, because whoever enters a chat is now within contact distance.1 AIM was like e-mail in that you had to get someone’s username beforehand, as searching by true name didn’t work. So confusing were people’s usernames that guessing didn’t work either, as like domain names, every good one was taken.
With a dedicated, hacked iOpener running Windows 98 and Trillian, it was easy to keep our comms system up and out of the way, in much the manner an iPhone or iPad works today. If someone needed to reach us and we were home, either of these three methods worked. For deeper discussion, we other tools.
We’ll mention Usenet even though our use of it had already waned ten years ago. Prior to that, we spent a lot more time on various newsgroups, which were ultimately ruined by spam and inactivity. Web-based fora would replace Usenet for most purposes, and we ended up maintaining a presence on several online fora just as we previous inhabited a handful of newsgroups before. By “mainted a presence” we mean that we were active participants and regularly scanned for new threads and discussion topics. In a way, an online forum was more than just a place to seek specific information, but a place to regularly hangout. It was time-consuming to say the least, and the return-on-investment was probably a lot less than the other networks we used. But it worked.
A different picture today.
There’s only one network we heavily relied on 10 years ago that we still use on a daily basis today. These are the networks that, on a daily basis, we use today:
- SMS / Messages
There’s no way to shirk e-mail. We might argue that it’s become more of a backup communication system for us, but in reality, a lot of our communication is still reliant on this utterly insecure protocol. Looking back, we’re surprised that e-mail encryption never really took off, and that the protocol has remained so simple.
When we got our first smartphone, we played around with an AIM client, but it never maintained our attention. If we sign on to AIM today, it’s a fluke, and IRC is just a fond memory now.2 If it weren’t for a very different computer schedule today, we might still use IRC, but it’s a time investment we can no longer regularly afford. The closest thing we have to our old comms trinity is SMS/Messages and Twitter, which serve as reasonable real-time ways to get ahold of us. Arguably, we could get rid of SMS/Messages and use Twitter excusively, but because we have several contacts who don’t maintain a Twitter account, we still field text messages from our less computer-savvy acquaintances.3 In reality, SMS/Messages isn’t exactly a feature we use every single day, but since we technically check for SMS notifications on our mobile devices daily, we’re “using” the protocol.
Since we started our Twitter account, we’ve only used it more and more, and have in many ways reduced the need for e-mail because of it. For example, we’ve found more success in tweeting a company Twitter account with a quick question than waiting for an e-mail response, and messaging a friend is just as simple. The 140-character limit can be annoying, but it also serves to make our messages more concise. The fact that Twitter has direct messaging makes the service very flexible, and the only thing that could make the service substantially better is being able to direct messages to specific lists in addition to publically.
We’re not active on any given web forum anymore, and we rarely lurk on a regular basis even. That said, the online forum is still a go-go place for niche topics, which is somewhat unfortunate as we feel it’s an outdated way to communicate and share ideas.4
What’s funny is that with the deluge of social networks available today, we find ourselves torn between what to use, and wishing we could go back to simpler times. But as the above illustrates, our online social life was no less complex back then, but rather more consistent; we’d hunker down on a social network for a lot longer than today, without the concern for privacy that networks like Facebook give us.5 And, while we had several networks ringing us in the past, tools like Trillian consolidated them nicely, so it felt like a simpler system. Tools like ifttt help consolidate the networks we use today, but the best form of consolidation in a lot of cases is simply abstinence from unecessary network proliferation in our lives.
Why don’t we use __?
There was a brief period of time where we’d check Facebook and G+ on a daily basis, but we’ve found our use of these networks has waned. The reasons for this are several, but a major culprit is inconsistent depth to discussions. We may find a very interesting discussion thread one day, but it may not be for another week or two until we find another, and what’s in-between is a bunch of useless text walls that we could care little about. It’s not that the same thing doesn’t happen on Twitter, but at least with a 140-character limit, it’s easier to sift through the chafe, and more often than not, we find something on Twitter worth sending over to Readability for deeper consideration at a later time. Facebook is all about keeping you on Facebook, which only comes across as desperate, and Google’s social app seems very underdeveloped on the iOS side.
While we try to cull our Facebook friends list every couple months, we haven’t yet pulled the trigger on dropping the account entirely. That’s something we’ll hopefully do soon, as we feel it’s the biggest timesink with the least return of the networks we occasionally check in on. While Facebook has a way to restrict messages to only certain groups of friends, we find their mobile implementation is lacking, and the company philosophy not in tune to our own. Facebook is still where a lot of family acquaintances lurk, but the funny thing about Facebook is that people want to be your friend but yet spend no real time actually pursuing conversation with you. We’d sooner replace Facebook entirely with Path for family contacts, assuming others are willing to make the switch; Path’s only downside is that no one is using it, even though the app looks great, works great, and is perfect for communicating with family.
We still believe G+ has a lot of potential, because the Circles implementation feels more natural than Facebook’s lists. The problem with G+ for us is entirely their mobile apps, and the inability to consistently view the desktop version of G+ on the iPad. If Google improves the product in the coming months, we might see our use of this network grow again, but in the meantime it continues to decline.
We’d be interested in hearing how your own online communications have changed over the last decade. Is our experience typical, or have your channels increased in number rather than decreased? Tweet us and let us know.
One of Facebook’s hidden strengths is entering a conversation and being able to discourse with people who aren’t your own friends. ↩
Yet we still remember our six-digit ICQ number, for some reason. ↩
It’s a similar argument for why we keep Facebook around. ↩
Google Wave was a good attempt at replicating forum needs and giving it a new face, but it obviously wasn’t perfect. We’re actually surprised Google Groups never took off. ↩
The networks we used a decade ago weren’t really display cases for personal information like the networks of today. ↩