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The Social Side of Communications

Sometimes what matters isn't what is "different" about things, but what's the same. All forms of communication between people are also forms of "collaboration." At least, the boundary between these two functions is more based on content than form, if it exists at all. All communication between people is also "social" in a sense. Finally, in our world of increasing virtualization, applications that use the network and that are in the network are indistinguishable. All of this may be adding up to bring about changes in our notion of communications.We could use some "difference" in the communications industry. Every vendor in the marketplace probably yearns for a time when users want to do fancy multi-party video calls in high-def instead of crummy low-bandwidth (and low-revenue) voice calls. We have had widely available video tools for almost a decade (NetMeeting from Microsoft is an example) and yet there are still relatively few users of video communication in the world of the enterprise.

I've offered video consulting as an option for five years, even featuring it on my homepage, and no one has ever tried to take advantage of it. I'm in well over 100 WebEx or GoToMeeting sessions per year and nobody is trying to use video on any of them. It seems as though the logical ways to promote things like telepresence are logical only to the sellers and not to the users.

Part of our problem may be that the model of communication between people is the phone call, and it's a model that has been so ingrained into our behavior that we are incapable of breaking the pattern. Even users of Cisco's fancy and expensive telepresence system tell us that when they are doing normal communication, they're no more likely to use video than someone who never had telepresence at all. They treat telepresence not as communication, but as the extension of the "meeting" behavior. There, it works fine for them, but they don't see it as part of "calling" behavior. Collaborating and calling are just too similar.

This suggests that the dynamic of video collaboration/communication might be better served by starting with a different relationship model. One such model that is showing promise is based on "social networks." Many of the social networks already have their own facilities for communication, even video, and others obtain facilities through developer programs. The question is whether this model might be better as the future of communications, particularly unified communications.

One of the benefits of a "social-network" framework for communications is that it centers on the concept of presence. A user's page can be made to represent their receptivity to communication, their context in terms of activities, and pretty much anything else you'd want it to represent. With other traditional forms of communication, presence is something you have to derive from what is essentially an instrumentation-based view of the user. Am I on my cell? How about IM? The notion of a presence hub offers at least the potential for better management.

Social networks also offer a logical basis for multi-party communication, which is not natural with normal communication services. A "chat" in a social network sense can be a convocation of users who start in text mode and then migrate to voice, video, sharing of data, or whatever. The percentage of calls today that evolve from two-party to multi-party is statistically insignificant. The multi-party flexibility of social networks is particularly interesting given that telepresence works for meetings and not for normal communications interactions today. It would make sense to assume that collecting a virtual meeting would be a key step in broadening telepresence.

But while all of this is good, and true, the key factor with social-network-based communication may be as simple as saying that it's different. I started this piece by commenting that we have been socialized from childhood to use telephony, and that makes it almost a conditioned reflex. How much of our resistance to new communications ideas is built around habits of a lifetime? There is a huge inertia to any social process, and communication is the most social of all processes.

There is already a lot of interest in social networks as the basis for collaboration, but it's focused so far on intra-company deployment and special fields like health care. Of the current major ones, Multiply likely has the strongest policy tools and basis for creating a communications hub, but the focus of the company so far is more on the family and photo-and-news side. LinkedIn is the most traditional business site, but most people seem to use it as a kind of extended Contacts folder to peruse from time to time.

With economic problems suppressing travel budgets and increasing pressure to socialize and sell, we may just find out next year.