Making Meaning with Web Products, and thoughts on Facebook Messaging

When I think about web products, the thing that strikes me are the products that seem to come to mind as exciting and engaging are not those that offer the greatest utility, but those that, in some way or another, create meaning for users. There's not a whole lot that's surprising about this statement, except when you start to ask questions about this:

  • What web product last made you cry as you used it?

  • What web product makes you laugh on a regular basis?

  • What web product brings you new friends? What web product makes your other friends closer? What web product turns acquaintances into friends you go to during times of trouble?

  • What web product creates new interests for you? Hobbies? Passion? Purpose?

  • What web product allows you to actualize on your passions, to do more with your hobbies, or act on and participate in your interests?

When you think about it this way, perhaps the list is pretty short. But now that we've got the fundamentals out of the way, now that we've built the utilities of the web, I think we're going to start to see a lot of new products like this. Many of our products - Twitter, for example, and even Facebook to a large extent, focus on making it easier to disseminate information. But information, by itself, is not meaning.

There are new products already moving towards this. Last Sunday's announcement of Path feels like a product that's moving in this direction. But there's one particular product, in my mind, that creates meaning above and beyond any other product on the web today. And here's a product that has been around for a long while, and probably hasn't had any significant updates in the last ten years. What is it?

AOL Instant Messenger.

I think a lot of people use this product, but probably not a lot of people have thought about it. But I've noticed a few things about this product, either by design or accident.

First, there is the opt-in nature of the product: A lot of companies have this idea that somehow, by plugging people into chat anytime they're on their site, this will create value for users. The difference is this: When I sign onto AIM, you know that I am at my computer, ready and open to chat - I've explicitly opted into the chat program. Compared to gchat or Facebook, I have no idea if the person is just accidentally logged into chat, if they've left a window open and gone away, or what.

I think this is particularly apparent in the types of conversations that people have with gchat or AIM. Gchat feels a bit like a phone call - when I call you, in a way, I'm invading your space, and you and I are trying to feel out whether the other one is open to being chatty, or whether they're not. The fact that this gets progressively more awkward without the indicators of voice or body language means that this is a big hurdle to overcome through casual conversation. As such, I, at least, usually IM on gchat with a specific purpose, or, at the very least, a question or message I want to get across. The conversations seem oddly formal, structured and to the point. In contrast, AIM is a bit like walking through a coffee shop: everyone else there is just trying to have a good time, and striking up conversation is as simple as, "How are you?" And if you are busy, well, you're not entirely sure what said person is doing on AIM, anyways. These conversations are more relaxed, meandering through the subjects the users have in common.

Second, there is the continuity of the product: what I mean by this is, it's always on. It's always in the background, chirping away quietly. In many ways, AIM never lets me feel lonely or disconnected, I know I'm a hop and a click away from a conversation with my friends. Yesterday morning, I had several IMs pop up asking me what I thought of Path, and it wasn't about the dissemination of that news, but the chance to absorb and discuss the news together. The continuous conversation that I have managed to have with friends about little things like this have formed a much more engaging conversation, a conversation littered with a deeper understanding of that person's view of the world.

There is no doubt in my mind, that AIM and this meandering style of discussion has created many more friends for me; in fact, it is to the point where if I ask someone if they have AIM and they respond "No," it's not just a bummer, it's a silent acknowledgement of the fact that our friendship will be very, very difficult for me to develop to a deep level. Contrast this to Facebook - Monday night I had a friend take a shot of us at the Sharks game. I realized that this picture wasn't going to show up on Facebook. Why? Because I wasn't even friends with him on Facebook, yet we talked at least every other day on AIM.

This leads to the third point, which has to do with the simplicity of the product. AIM is one of those products that is really only as complicated and simple as it absolutely needs to be. Using Adium, my preferred IM client, I simply drag and drop the image into the chat window, and, after a quick "Direct Connection" query to my partner, the image shows up in their chat box. Simple.
Similarly, AIM isn't so simple as to leave out necessary features. Simple things like having a cell phone or away or idle status next to a buddy's screen name and the easy, custom setting of those messages allows me to make better decisions about what to IM the person. The truth is, saying, "Hey" to someone and getting no response is awful. Any tool that lets me minimize that feeling will leave me happy. On the other side, the mobile identifier and the Away message allows people to contact me in a way that's gracious to my needs at any given time. If I'm on my mobile, I really don't want a flowy, long, meandering conversation. My friends can see that I'm on my phone, and only IM me if there's a point to the entire conversation - something quick, urgent and simple.

Other simple but excellent features? The buddy icon, the ability to group friends, the ability to go invisible...

Lastly, there is the sanctity of the space. This might seem to contradict the idea of the "coffee shop" nature of AIM which I talked about earlier, but this is actually a big deal. Unlike Facebook chat or ghcat, every contact in my AIM list was placed there explicitly, by me. As such, the product feels even more personal - I manage, in many ways, to keep the rest of the world out, and focus on the people who make me happy, the people that I care about. Sure, chat tools are a utility, but this super personal nature of AIM in particular makes it feel like so much more.

For a while, I used to be a bit embarrassed by my love of AIM. I would meet interesting people, and as I used to do, would off handedly mention my AIM handle. And for a while, all I got were blank looks - "You still use that product?!" But now, I'm noticing that most of the people I have perceived as having a very high standard for the "meaning" that products should have on the web use this tool. I'm not so embarrassed to ask about it anymore - in fact, it serves as a sort of litmus test (though there are clearly exceptions). It may be because of this "meaning" that AIM creates, it may be because those who have had a long, fruitful relationship with the web just let old habits die hard and continue using the program, or who knows. But I don't think this is a mistake.

And specifically, about these questions of making meaning? This product is something I've used for a very long time.

  • I've cried about vicious breakups, some of which had scenes that took place through the context of the product, all of which had me running for support from my closest friends using AIM as the medium.

  • The ridiculous conversations that take place at odd hours of the night, the recap of people's days, the daily inside jokes, and occasionally the sharing of hilarious content all makes me laugh.

  • As I said before, this tool is one that not only makes me new friends through the serendipity of these conversations (have you ever IMed someone you don't know very well out of the blue, only to lead to a several hour-long discussion? There are a rare few other mediums that allow for this), but occasionally defines how good a friend will become. Many of my closest friends have logged more IM time than face-to-face time, and one of my very best friends started out as purely an "IM friend." It frustrates me when good friends walk away from the product, because it usually means I lose touch with them.

  • As for passions and purpose, AIM may not be the gateway to these things, but certainly they represent a great opportunity to learn more and do more through social connections. Discussing the things that interest me drives more fascination: repeating to friends my new obsessions and excitement only increases, not decreases, that excitement.

  • And on a related note, I've probably received more advice on my startup through AIM than any other tool. I've used it to do interviews and research, to write emails and share proposals.

Which brings me to Facebook's new messaging system.

One of the things I've been thinking about recently is a tool to help individuals get in touch with other individuals. Usually, for my closest friends, I have some idea of where they are, and the best way to get messages to them - I know my one friend who doesn't really like text messages, but will respond to them if they're urgent or related to practical matters. Far better to try to catch him on IM. Another friend is terrible at IM, but quite good with email. A third friend is usually on IM, but lurking in invisible mode. If I didn't know these things about them, it would be quite difficult to get a message to them, and get a timely answer. Part of this works because, in fact, we usually want to be fairly transparent and accessible to our friends, but not necessarily to the rest of the world. But every once in a while, when I want to send a relatively time-sensitive message to someone I don't know well, I have to pick a method of communication - text, email, IM, etc - and hope that I've picked the right one to reach them at that time.

This sounds like the kind of thing Facebook might be trying to do. And if so, that's wonderful. But it's worth keeping in mind a few things then.

Facebook is cementing its status as a tool for loose ties. A tool like this is great for people who don't know how to contact me, and could use Facebook's limited sense of how best to contact me. This isn't my closest friends, this is everybody else. The fact is, this is a tool I don't need with my closest friends, and quite possibly, not one I want. I can see, for example, manipulating this tool such that I am still provided a level of privacy. Most of the people who contact me through Facebook, honestly, are people that annoy me (being able to contact old friends is wonderful, but usually you've fallen out of touch with that person for a reason).

It strikes me too, how this product does a great job of sticking in Facebook's tradition of creating non-aspirational products. Where as other products are about opening up new borders, making new friends, finding new passions, Facebook has always been squarely about who you already know, what you already do. This product's focus on getting messages from your friends is exactly about this. But the growth that comes from new friendships and new opportunities are limited, because they're all stuck in this netherworld of the "Other" folder.

This is clearly still about utility - not emotion or meaning. Part of that meaning coming from other products comes from the fact that the messages passing through these aren't "bits" of information, clear answers. You watch the video that Facebook provides on it, and they talk about, "A person" and "A message." All well and good, but that's all about content - it's not about the fact that maybe I just want to have a conversation with you - regardless of what it's about.

I think often, when designing online social products, we make the mistake of assuming that there's specific content that people want to get across and share, or there is something specific we want to get out of other people. But, in real social interactions, the most meaningful tend to be the ones where we don't know what we're searching for. It's hard to email someone and say, "Oh, dear, you know, I'm so insecure about this and I'm worrying about it and I don't know what to do." But, if that conversation comes up naturally in the course of a larger, more general conversation, there's a lot of meaning and social opportunity within it. These serendipitous moments tend to turn us onto new interests, passions, thoughts and thinking.

Which brings me to this other point - I think Facebook doesn't really get the idea of having your space. There's an assumption, built into this product, that communication is always good. Being in communication, being able to sort through that communication, everything. But as soon as that's the case, people will begin to incorporate new social norms to deal with these realities - and those won't always be good for Facebook. For example, I'm not going to text someone I don't know well a paragraph describing the funny thing that just happened to me in the grocery store line, but I might send them an email about it. If I don't know if this is going to reach them via email or text, I might just assume the worst and figure I won't send it at all. I once had a friend ask me if being able to predict the form in which the person I'm sending a message to will be able to view it is important. Since one of my close friends finally switched over to the iPhone, I've realized this is absolutely true - I know exactly how my text message will look on his iPhone, and it's definitely a solace to be able to know how I'm being represented in a digital context. Sure, it won't make or break whether we have a conversation, but it's a little, important thing. And more important once we start to have situations where any one message could be displayed 10 different ways, rather than just two.

Facebook is really assuming that the context of these messages don't matter - whether you receive them on SMS or email or IM - and that the messages themselves are actual, factual bits of information. But in reality, conversations tend to surface things that aren't just factual, to bring up things that even we didn't know we had to say. They're contextual, depending so much on the place we are in, and the mode of conversation.

AIM is a meaningful product partly because it understands all this, and partly because the users who use it have developed a strong cultural understanding of what it means, and the appropriate ways to use it. Just like there is a consistent, strong cultural understanding of when to write letters and what writing letters means, that also exists throughout AIM. Facebook is sort of tearing apart our ability to construct that understanding using its product, and thus moving itself squarely into the domain of utility, and out of the domain of meaning.

Also, does it surprise anyone that the voices being heard on this product are all engineers? Perhaps Google can start catching up to Facebook on social now that they both have engineers designing their social products...

By the by, here's some further reading on Facebook's new messaging product: