Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Belshaw's World - the changing face(book) of communication technology

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on 27 April 2011. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011.

Over the last month, my two oldest blogs turned five.

In the five years since then, I have written 3,828 posts, over two million words. That’s a long time and a lot of words!

Looking back, it got me reflecting on some of the changes that I had seen over the period.

Some eighteen years ago, my then Armidale consulting group did a study for Australia Post on the substitution of electronic for physical communications.

Our immediate focus was on the impact on physical mail. However, one of our most interesting conclusions at the time was the likely death of the fax machine at the hands of email.

Email had yet to take-off properly, but it was clearly reaching critical mass in some of the large organisations we surveyed. The only thing holding it back was the unwillingness of many senior managers to learn how to use it.

Within three years, email usage exploded. It did kill the fax for other than niche uses, while also reducing telephone usage.

The death of the fax is a sign of one feature of successful new technologies, the way that they can devour their predecessors. At the same time, it can be very difficult to predict just what is likely to happen.

Take the mobile phone as an example.

When we did our first work in this area back in the late 1980s, it was quite clear that mobile usage was going to grow. However, what we did not properly understand at the time was the way in which mobiles would substitute for fixed lines in countries with poor fixed line services to become the dominant form of telecommunications.

The interesting thing about this is that a fair bit of the mobile technology that has exploded over the last five years has actually been driven in part by the needs of people for whom mobile communications was the only form of available telecommunications. It was then been picked up and extended in the developed countries, but consumers in those countries were not the original drivers.

When I began blogging, the blog or web log had been around for a while, but had just entered the explosive growth stage.

Like all major new technology applications, its dedicated exponents saw it as the wave of the future. It would become an important business tool, create fortunes and lead to a new era of citizen journalism. It didn’t quite work that way.

One reason is that existing website approaches incorporated some of the elements of blogs and blogging. The main stream media or MSM, for example, increasingly incorporated blogs and blogging features into their on-line coverage.

A simple example is the comments section at the end of on-line stories, allowing readers to provide instant responses. Suddenly, the blogging world found its readers being attracted back to the MSN. Many of the highest traffic blogs were now MSM blogs.

The ABC’s the Drum, Tim Blair or Andrew Bolt are current Australian examples.

Then came Facebook and Twitter.

Facebook had just entered the public space when I began blogging. Focused on the human desire for interaction, Facebook’s friend system and user friendly interface led to explosive growth.

Facebook stripped much of the weblog component from blogging. Blogging aged as younger users moved to a Facebook system that better met their needs. Older bloggers, too, started spending more time on Facebook.

Twitter continued the process because it took many bloggers away from blogging – there is only so much time – into tweeting. However, things are never as simple as this.

Just as Facebook effectively devoured earlier social networking tools such as Bebo and MySpace, now Twitter began to devour Facebook because it provided an alternative means for short self-expression to either blogs or Facebook. Its hash tag system also challenged Facebook’s special pages that had previously provided a vehicle for subject specific content.

Facebook is aging as blogging did before it. This has not been helped by changes to the Facebook user interface, changes that many users disliked.

Again, the mainstream media has incorporated Twitter as it did blogging.

The full flowering of this arrived with the Japanese earthquake and recent middle east troubles. There the MSM used tweets and YouTube posts to gain instant information that could not be acquired by normal reporting means, while blogs were used to provide continuous news updates.

I will continue this story in my next column.


Miss Eagle said...

Looking forward to the next episode. It is an interesting exercise. On the subject of the takeover of fixed line phone by the mobiles, the thing I noticed most was that younger ones living in rented accommodation and foreseeing much movement in their lives opted out of landlines relying on the convenience of mobile technology, even if it was more expensive.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, Miss E. Your comment on the young is very interesting. I think that its an ease factor as well. Getting a landline is a greater hassle.

In today's column I focused especially on newspapers. Will write moe. It's an interesting topic!