Privacy, secrecy, and you

We’ve all heard a hell of a lot in the media recently about our sudden lack of privacy. Comedian David Mitchell suggested on “10 O’Clock Live” that the internet has basically made spying too easy: when spies had to really work hard to cover a lot of ground, we were relatively protected from being spied on through sheer numbers (assuming you, dear reader, are not a known terrorist. I’m sure you’re not). This is no longer the case, as computers can crunch an awful lot of messages awfully quickly.

It’s a fair point.

So why do we fear being spied upon by our governments (or, perhaps, “their” governments)? And what can we do to keep our communications more private?

Well, to answer the second question first I have a radical proposal: get rid of anonymity. Yes, I know everyone is going on about how we need services which protect our anonymity but, really, do we? A greater threat to our embryonic online social scene than any foreign government is people who, feeling secure in their anonymity, behave anti-socially. And we’ve seen enough examples of just how anti-social people can get on the internet to realise that the time has come to do something about it. It’s just not acceptable to allow people to be hounded on Twitter, Facebook or anyone else by hate-filled vitriol; even death threats. We can end this quite simply: by removing anonymity.

These public services are not intended to be used anonymously. Facebook’s #1 rule under Registration and Account Security is: “You will not provide any false personal information on Facebook”. Twitter’s policy is somewhat less specific, but does clearly state that: “You may not impersonate others through the Twitter service in a manner that does or is intended to mislead, confuse, or deceive others.”

The trouble is, there is no real way for Twitter, Facebook, Google or any other provider to know for sure whether you are who you say you are. You could be using a made-up persona, or you could be impersonating someone else: either way you’re able to post anonymously.

So my radical suggestion is this: that we extend the systems we already have which give people legal identity – passports, most usually – and use them as a source for online identity. So, just like if I want to sign up for online tax returns I need to prove my identity with an official source, so too should I have to do this when I sign up to Facebook, Twitter or any of the others.

There is still scope for anonymous systems, but they serve a different purpose. Try this thought experiment. If there were two versions of Twitter, identical in every way except that one allowed anonymity and the other enforced “official” identity, which would you use? The anonymous one, because you fear government snoops? Or the regulated one? I suggest that you choose the regulated one because 1) you will know that the tweet from your favourite footballer really did come from your favourite footballer; 2) you will know that your message to your favourite footballer will be going to him; 3) you will be unlikely to receive really offensive or threatening messages because nobody wants to do time in prison; 4) your favourite footballer may actually read messages you send to him, because he won’t be using the system in send-only mode (which everyone in the public eye does, currently, much of the time, in order to avoid having to read hate-filled vitriol).

The world would be a happier place all round. Let those who wish to remain anonymous remain anonymous… but on other systems.

Does this keep our conversations more private? I’d argue yes, it does. Governments would have no need to routinely monitor messages if they knew that the proper, legal avenue – a court order – would work.

How about the other question: why do we fear being spied upon by governments? My honest view? I’m really not sure that we do. But hell, it sells papers.

No, Social Media is not dead

I’ve not posted for quite a while but, like our old friend Social Media, I am not dead. Unlike Social Media, I’ve been doing other things (writing a book no less: “An Infinite Number of Monkeys: A Guide to Effective Business Communications”, http://www.mike-barnes.co.uk/monkeys; travelling around Scotland with my family on an extended break). Social Media hasn’t gone anywhere.

We get this cycle with all “next big things”: people keep saying “is Unified Communications dead”, for instance. The truth is, marketeers like grabbing hold of concepts and warping them to their own advantage – and it is marketeers who create the buzz, even now in our socially-enabled world. Because, despite the hype (ironically), most of the information we consume comes from traditional sources – although we may be accessing them in a different form. But that’s beside the point.

We’ve gone through the first few years of buzzworthiness, and Social Media is now firmly entrenched. That means that it does not so effectively differentiate products: everything even vaguely in the space has a social moniker. The marketeers, thankfully, can now move on to abuse other things.

What remains is a core of tools which have, in many ways, been around for a long time but which are made more effective by always-on networking, impressive computing power in the home, and mobile devices approaching Star Trek cool.

The basic tools, though, are really simple: text exchange, video exchange, directories, tagging, rating, following and sharing.

A social media product (I’ll drop the capital letters now, you’ll be pleased to hear) allows people to post ideas, videos or activities (I guess this is the “media” part. I’ve never really found the term very descriptive), and allows others to share them, rate them, and discuss them. And, although it’s a far cry from your old address book, in order to share there’s a directory of contacts in the background – some of them are contacts who have added themselves (your followers). Different systems present all this in different ways but the fundamentals are the same.

A few years ago, when the internet was young, I was an active member of Fidonet. Never heard of Fidonet? Fidonet consisted of private computers which dialled each other up at night in order to exchange messages which people wrote. Those computers ran Bulletin Board System (BBS) software which provided the users with their interface. They dialled up too (yes, this was all done over the normal phone network using modems). Some were messages to each other (netmail: basically email, but not quite so swift) and others were messages in forums (echomail: like Yahoo Groups but, that’s right, not so swift). If you started an echomail group (I can’t even remember the proper term for it, it’s been a long 25 years) other people could choose to read it – but only if their chosen BBS had subscribed to it.

See? Subscribing, message exchange, social interaction: that is where all this started.

Fidonet, by the way, really is dead. The internet preserves it’s state at http://www.fidonet.org/, but as far as I can see from that there’s nobody home. Nor should there be… analogue modems and dial up BBSs? This is 2013. (wikipedia seems to disagree with me: maybe the dog is just resting?).

Social media built on these early beginnings by making the atoms of information smaller: we don’t have to subscribe to a whole echomail group, or indeed to a whole RSS stream, we can subscribe to see updates of/from a specific person, product, or “thing”. It’s actually still pretty granular: I have to subscribe to all of Stephen Fry’s wittering on Twitter, or none of it – there’s nothing in Twitter’s own system which will pull out just the gems for me.

So social media isn’t a new thing, it just reached a point a few years ago where technologies were ripe and ready to provide a step-change in user experience. Social media isn’t new, but it’s changing as it’s getting better all the time… and acquiring new buzzwords as the marketeers get involved. Will we give it a different name at some point? I expect the marketeers will see to that, but even when the name is buried alongside long lamented Fidonet

So next we will be seeing new names for subtle variations on the same things. That’s OK, but just remember: social media is not dead, it’s just being absorbed into the big toolbox of spanners which collectively forms our communications toolkit.

BYOD to Save the World

The business world, at least in the IT community, is abuzz with the concept of Bring Your Own Device (BYOD). Simply put, this just means employers allowing employees to use their own IT equipment (phones, computers, tablets) for work – either instead of, or supplementary to, equipment provided by the business itself. Read more of this post

Social Updates

Folks, just a quick post to say I’m now using Google+ quite extensively as my social platform of choice. I’m a big user of Google products, and the integration into Google+ is great – plus, it’s simply a well-crafted social media application. Read more of this post

Olympic gold for telecoms?

The London 2012 Olypmics have been fantastic – and I say that as a sceptical Brit who is generally as interested in most sports as you probably are about belly-button fluff.

Aside, obviously, from the fact that Team GB trounced every country which should have beaten us on the medals table (not including the US and China who absolutely had to beat us, and maybe Russia too who had an awesome medals tally), the games have been a triumph for technology. Underpinning the skills of organisers, volunteers and athletes has been some frighteningly good use of electronics.

The pixels in the stadium wowed us, but where I’m really going with this article is the stuff many people will have taken for granted. Mobile apps, full live and recorded streaming of all the events on-line, satellite and freeview multi-channel action, tie-ins with Twitter and some very slick on-line apps to pull the whole lot together.

This is really how Unified Communications should be. Not convinced that this is Unified Communications at all? Well you should be because, whilst many people like to pigeon-hole UC into a niche of business IM/email/voicemail/voice/video, UC is all about taking multiple forms of communication and integrating them to provide a service where each technology is put in front of the user in the most appropriate fashion. The BBC did a great job of wrapping these things together in their web and TV coverage.

According to the press, Cisco provided 1,800 wireless access points, 2,220 switches, 10,000 cable TV sockets, 16,500 telephones/ IP handsets, and 65,000 active network ports. The IP handsets are the big interest for me I guess, as I had a minor role to play there, and as they were all controlled from a Cisco Hosted UC solution designed by Cisco and operated by BT I would say that this proves to the doubters that hosted UC works – even when the pressure’s on.

If it was this good in 2012, think how it may be in 2016. I can’t wait – I might even have bought a tablet by then…

UC Expo time again

A cross between a trade show and a conference, UC Expo (and IP Expo) has been a useful day out for me for the last couple of years since becoming a communications industry consultant. I highly recommend it, not least because it’s free.

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World take note: Thierry Breton hates email

Newspapers have recently been reporting the news that French IT services company Atos will end internal email by 2014. It presents this bombshell as being the brainchild of boss Thierry Breton, who having been at France Telecom ought to know what he’s talking about. Of course, having been in government he also knows the value of viral marketing and how to spark it.

So what’s all this about?

Assuming it’s not simply a (successful) attempt to get a bit of publicity for his company, he must be serious. Thierry Breton has decided that email is bad, and it really must go.

My first concern here is why the CEO of a company is getting so involved in deciding how the IT tools work? And at an IT company too! Isn’t there anyone specialising in, say, IT, who has the job of creating and promoting the appropriate tools for the folks at Atos to do their jobs? From the BBC’s article, it sounds like it’s very much his baby.

Essentially, Thierry is choosing between two options: a) a mix of SMTP and IMAP presenting data through a traditional email client and b) proprietary data exchange protocols working, presumably, at the database level and presenting data through custom web interfaces. Why does he care? Apparently he hasn’t used email for five or six years, but I suspect he hasn’t travelled economy for at least that long either.

Email as we know it today is ubiquitous, fast, and effective at delivering content to one or more people. What it isn’t is efficient, as it is used poorly in many cases (those “reply all” emails, for example, as well as Corporate Spam) and more importantly it does not provide a mechanism for getting the right information to the right people at the right time. It would be pretty easy to address a good deal of the concerns over email volume by applying a filter to only show message “To” yourself, and by the organisation banning Corporate Spam. Or, and here’s a shocker, to educate people to use it properly.

(Corporate Spam, by the way, is all those emails which go to building aliases, massive chain-of-command aliases, or other non-specific groupings and which proudly announce a new product, a new phone number, a winning of a reward or some other such news which could just as easily be posted on a news website. The quick tip is if an email has a picture of an exec looking smarmy at the top, delete it immediately.)

My big theme, if I have a big theme, is that the art of communications isn’t just about communications tools – it’s about the people using them too. I’m heartened that Thierry’s big quest appears to have come about from a study of working conditions, but I’m not so sure he’s looked at the big picture. If the papers can be trusted, he’s focused on the “bright young things” who have never used Outlook and, of course, never wear a watch because their phone is always to hand. It’s of course great to get the input of fresh minds, but fresh minds who haven’t much experience aren’t necessarily going to have all the answers.

Perhaps I’m being unkind. No doubt this has been given a great deal of thought by the great and good at Atos. So let’s take a look at what they’ll be doing.

The clearest statement is that internal email will be axed by 2014, but external email – email to customers, business partners and the rest of the outside world – will remain. A necessary evil? Surely just a recognition that email can be useful. Which is my second concern. Email can be useful – it really can. It’s a nice easy way of getting a message from one person to another. Why chuck it out in favour of new an untested tools? If the problem is Outlook, then get rid of Outlook. But because person-to-person and person-to-multiperson communication is important email, however it’s presented, is an important part of the mix.

What will replace email? An integration of social media tools, unspecified but fairly obvious. There are IM/Presence, wikis, blogs, forums, tagging and advanced search to choose from, as well as technology such as RSS.

Where email is the mature father figure of the electronic communications age, social networking is the offspring. Some, like IM, have grown fairly mature and are well liked in the community – but IM still has nowhere near the reach of email. Why can’t I see the presence of and send an IM to anyone in the world who has an IM client? Because they’re not all connected (sometimes because of security mania, sometimes because of cost or perceived lack of need). OK, so within an organisation this will not matter but the point is none of these tools have the maturity of email and so integration suffers because the standardisation is not there. No matter what people say, social media tools do not integrate well. A note on your Facebook wall will not appear in Google Plus, you need to integrate at the client level – which is not a good thing. Yes, you can build something that works but you’re going to be maintaining it for the rest of your life. That’s what standards are for, to lessen the integration burden.

The time is right to embrace all communications tools and put them to use as effectively as possible. Some customer integration is acceptable, and is certainly necessary. But the time is not right to re-invent the world. Email remains a valid tool which should be embraced and not shunned because of the failings of its users.

And whilst I’m keeping my fingers crossed that Atos can put together a solution that works for them, this isn’t a step forward for the industry. Yes, marketing men the world over who want to hype social media tools will be eager for a poster child, but in reality what we’re seeing here is a bespoke solution hacked together for the benefit of a control-freak CEO – and complete rejection of an established tool. What I would far rather see is a reasoned communications methodology for Atos, a definition of how they do business and how their tools make it work. It needs to cover all business processes which involve information flow, not just the stuff that essentially replaces paper memos and face-to-face meetings. Following that, I’d like to see that communications methodology embodied into infrastructure and backed by a pervasive cultural change.

I hope that’s what Thierry has in mind, and if so I’d be very interested to see it.

IP Expo 2011 Roundup

Freshly back from the second day of IP Expo, held at Earl’s Court, London, I thought I should share some thoughts whilst they’re fresh in my mind.

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Email: The heart of communications

Email is not dead. Email is not dying. Email is alive and well, and will be with us all for many, many years to come.

Email is your friend. Say it after me: “Email is my friend!”

There, now you are ready to read on.

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Knowledge is Power

If I have a pervading theme to my messaging around effective communications, it’s that it’s all about knowledge and the transfer of it from one mind to another appropriate mind with the minimum of fuss. HP clearly agree.

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