Communication metadata: can we get on with having real relationships online?

Something that’s been interesting me since around 2001 (the start of my career in online community) is how do we represent and translate detailed social interaction into digital, from offline community. So far, we’re all adding plenty of social noise, but not making much music. By that I mean that we’re just putting stuff out digitally in a flat way, without having the intricacies of personal relationships. We’re missing a major part of what relationships are, and how they function.

To continue on from my talk at #OpenMIC (“Turning Like into Love” transcript) earlier this year, it’s about the way digital social tools or social media, are (at the moment) chipping away at relationships and how the future is about taking relationships back.

When we present information out on the internet (tweet/blog/Facebook etc), everything has the same priority and standing. In the beginning (early 2000s), I didn’t notice it too much, as off line relationship methods were still the usual way to communicate with friends, relatives and colleagues. Important information was generally passed on by a hierarchy which for me (and I assume most) looked something like this:

  • face to face
  • telephone call
  • text
  • email
  • other

But over the last few years for me and most other people I know, Dunbar’s number has gone out the window. With the ability to keep more relationships in the loop using online means, the general default for passing on news is becoming broadcast. The other one to one mechanisms listed above still exist for people’s inner circle, but the extended groups of connections get their updates from a one-to-many interaction.

The part of this that I’ve been ruminating on is that this flat structure for all news isn’t working for me. These days, I very rarely read all the status updates from when I last visited a social media application. A tweet/Facebook status from a friend about an important life event (child being ill, having a baby, getting married, having a birthday etc) is something I want to see, regardless of when I log in, or even if I log in. The updates about your lunch, cat photo, hangover or work problem are still interesting, but I’m not overly concerned if next time I log in to my social media account I don’t scroll back to find it – as I’m sure you’re not either. Missing the fact that you gave birth, got a new job, broke your arm etc though, we might both feel pretty bad about.

I know some companies have had a stab at it – Facebook allows you to categorise friends, and lets you choose how much of everything they post you want to see. But this is still done on an on/off basis of photos or no photos, “important” or “not important” (I’m guessing they use a how-many-interactions algorithm to determine this) etc. It’s not letting you actually define real relationship interaction (if X has marked an update $important, and I want to receive their $important updates, please do CallToAction). Twitter has hashtags, allowing people to search on updates they’re interested in, but again: the nuance of the relationship PLUS the information is lost.

I had a play with Cadmus some time ago but it’s a bit slow, and is only integrated with Twitter, Friendfeed & RSS for now. It’s not solving the problem I think we have, though it’s an interesting first stab at sifting news from noise.

So for me, it’d be a mechanism that allowed the news sharer to tag/highlight their not-your-normal-news shares, and for people subscribing to be able to filter per relationship on what they class as important. Then, to receive those bits of news how they chose – email, text, DM, FB msg etc. Or better still, just building for relationships from the get go.

In conclusion, I want to leave you with the question I’ve been pondering on the last few years: how do we start building technology that allows us to mirror our offline relationships online, and why haven’t we? Where are the technology meets psychology start ups?

First service to nail that, is the next big thing in my opinion.

[this is a repost from – see there if you’d like to read and add comments]