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Confessions Of A Tunisian Hacktivist

Google + still looks more like a science fair exhibit than anything else. I say that because I continue to feed it by skimming Circle notifications, only rarely finding anybody I recognize or forgot to block already. Facebook taught me the value of making distinctions at the invitation stage, not by separating into family and friends but by accepting anyone who I either recognized or who made an attempt to signal some interest in what I wrote or communicated on the network. Twitter I constrained to a very small set of follows and a counter-intuitive best practice.

That consisted of frequently breaking the “rules” by getting really verbose in realtime, imagining that Twitter was in reality a worldwide message bus and not a celebrity honey pot. The early Twitter featured Track, which allowed us to ping someone with their @handle and immediately get a response. That back and forth style was exhilarating, but it also pissed off the larger volume of folks who followed based on a strategy of creating a comprehensive stream of updates from people who wanted to reach as many people as possible.

The trouble was, and is, that I was, and am, more interested in establishing a strongly-typed follow cloud where such communications chatter contained value as a measure of not just its content but the context surrounding the messages. That is, the @mentions, the retweets, the timing of the interactions, and the sense of how these individual interactions scaled outward in a cascading series of overlapping circles. By establishing rules for myself based on such context, those who weren’t interested soon fell away. What was left has grown slowly over time, but not based on suggested user lists (I’m not suggested) or popularity.

Those interior rules are simple: anything goes, as long as I feel I’m adding something to the conversation, preferably either unique or supportive of something I deem valuable. I’m not opposed to being promotional about what I post; I retweet every column and Gillmor Gang from the TechCrunch feed, adding @mentions of the Gang members and a few others that may be referenced. But the @mentions are designed to establish a taxonomy of interest, a map of the fluctuations and authority that flows around the participants and themes of the material.

It’s my sense that these maps exist in the wild, whether or not they are being curated or simply observed and harvested. Similarly, the work we are beginning to do with Siri is creating the outlines of a similar layer of context based on how we alter our behavior in order to optimize the current state of Siri’s capabilities. Over time, Siri will extend itself to built in and third party apps, and over time those services will talk not just to us but on our behalf to each other. While it may not be immediately discoverable, I believe these two layers, the @mention cloud and Siri routing, are already connected and operating in tandem.

If that is true, then our immediate opportunity is to establish these communities of interest regardless of the underlying service. In doing so, we imbue these notification layers with IP that neither depends on or is locked into any one service. Instead, the messages may be more easily housed in one or another service, but the overarching context only survives by being consistent and coherent across services. The same dynamics that for me first emerged from Twitter — Track, @mentions, and direct messages — are reliably available on Chatter and other services. I @mention Chatter not because it’s the only one that supports context (it’s not) but because it’s important that it does. Anybody who’s serious about context must follow these rules.

Much is made of the distinction between the consumer and commercial, though that is more a matter of products and economic model and strategy. But across these models is the unifying structure of time and opportunity, and the context that bridges them. Take the action of setting an alarm in Siri, or sending a direct message over Twitter. These are the most personal of events, signals to and from ourselves that we think of as private and necessarily secure.

But the context in which these messages operate is public, at least to the extent that the actions they trigger impact outside of our own view. An alarm triggers a quick shower and then a walk to a dinner meeting. A DM is received by another person and processed based on the symmetrical mutual follow relationship. In turn they might send a private message to someone else, but in aggregate the @mention cloud derives information based on a collaborative map of consensus. Expand it slightly with a public message with @mentions but without key details, and you bring in serendipitous rendezvouses unanticipated but desired.

Each of these broader attributes of the @mention layers survive and prosper regardless of service but in aggregate because of the strengths of each of these individual services. We all can feel the familial pull of Facebook, the sense that the landmarks of our lives — birthdays, reunions, memorials, life events that we formerly only tracked by design — are now part of the fabric of our daily lives. It’s not just family but a sense of family in our friendships, schoolmates, even the famous and semi-famous, all bound together by the basic immutable rhythm of our lives.

You can fill in the blanks for the other services, Twitter and the realtime drumbeat of what used to be called the news, Chatter with the heartbeat of the company and increasingly the uber companies that act in concert, and in some as yet unformed way Google +. It doesn’t matter what Google is doing with the service, though it clearly represents an orchestration of services that may or may not survive being absorbed. It does matter that what does work will add to the aggregate strength of the context service bridge.

Already we’re seeing microbridges being set up, like the one that puts Twitter into your Contacts list as an SMS address so you can ask Siri to Tweet out a message. As these hacks accelerate, it will be incumbent upon Apple to expand API access to the routing layer so that third parties and especially users themselves can construct these macros. The more they’re used, the more the business process layer can be extrapolated across multiple services. How many days did it take to come up with these early tools? This will happen fast. Can’t wait. Don’t have to.