Phillip Smith

Mark Surman asks "What does Internet messaging look like"

Mark wrote a great post recently on “the messaging side of Mozilla’s mission.” The topic also hit home for me and, in penning (what I thought would be) a quick response, I realized that it was probably a bit too big to post as a comment on Mark’s blog. So here are some thoughts on the future of messaging and Mozilla’s role.

Coming at the question “What does Internet messaging look like from where you sit,” I would propose that there’s a huge challenge for the organizations that seek to communicate with their constituents and communities in today’s messaging morass.

As David Ascher notes, there are all these different messaging platforms that people are using to send and receive information: Twitter, Facebook,, text message, plain ol’ e-mail, etc. And the organizations I work with are asking themselves “How do I send the right messages, to the right platforms, for the right people?” “Does Jane want her news via SMS, e-mail, Twitter, or…?” So I would put in a plug for part of the new model that David describes to include the needs of “publishers” (whatever that means these days).

Maybe a good example is something akin to what’s happening in the identity space with OpenID and OAuth, where the user is finally getting a bit of control and is able to manage how her identities are shared centrally. In that space:

  • Jane can create accounts with myriad sites using one single identity service;
  • She could be running that service herself, if she wanted to, because it’s an open standard;
  • And, from her identity service, she can decide what information to share with each site, or – down the road – whether she wants to continue sharing information with certain sites.

Although adoption was slow, it now feels like there’s an end in site, and – in that – relief for site owners (publishers) too, in the sense that there’s an open standard for identity and each site doesn’t have to re-invent the wheel. More than not re-inventing the wheel, the tipping point means that there’s huge incentive for site publishers to adopt the standard.

Messaging needs something similar.

Right now, the site publishers I work with are sending millions of messages a month via POEMs (plain ol’ e-mail messages). But they realize that a change is underway in the way that their communities want to receive information, and they’re trying to get their heads around it.

Until recently, the message model followed what was familiar to them: broadcast. The “we send, you receive” model. That was easy to manage: just get set up with a Web site and an e-mail broadcasting service and go home at 5PM. But imagine how it is today: publishers have to manage conversations, in addition to messaging, and it’s coming at them at a mile a minute. Comments on content, replies and DMs via Twitter, Facebook messages, and friend requests up the wazoo.

The old tools are not doing the job anymore.

David talks about people having to log into 50 different sites to search all of their messages. And so it is for publishers too that need to reach people across all of these messaging platforms. So there is common ground here.

I imagine something like an identity service, where Jane could manage her messaging platforms and preferences centrally. And where publishers were able to:

  • Focus on providing valuable, relevant, and timely information;
  • Worry less about how to get the messages out to all of these various platforms.
  • Send the message once, and it would be transformed to fit all of the various formats (140 characters or less, etc.) and delivered to the right users, in the right ways, with the maximum of efficiency and the least effort.

There are some tools and services out there. They are expensive, and proprietary, and not built with the ethos of helping people own their data (and instead simply focus on re-creating the broadcast medium across these new networks). Perhaps it’s an open middleware solution like AMQP, or a total revolution like what I perceive happening with identity – either way, I would propose that it needs to take into account the needs of both “publishers” and “users,” in whatever form those two may take (perhaps they are one and the same!).

Happy to see this conversation taking place, and that Mozilla will be there.


Hi, I'm Phillip Smith, a veteran digital publishing consultant, online advocacy specialist, and strategic convener. If you enjoyed reading this, find me on Twitter and I'll keep you updated.


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