A future that suddenly feels possible

Mike Hoye is the Director of Developer Engagement at Pluralsight and a consultant to DTI.

The Iconfactory team, maybe best known for creating Twitterrific back when having anything to do with Twitter was something a reasonable human might consider, recently announced a kickstarter for a project they call “Tapestry”, a unified inbox for social media. That team has a track record of shipping, and as I’m writing this they’ve blown past their funding goal with weeks to spare. It looks like it’s on track to becoming a real thing.

I’m going to be following that project closely; I’m interested in seeing what they ship, but I’m more interested in the dynamics of who they’re shipping it for, and this suddenly-new-again space they’re shipping it into.

Like so many of the hardest problems in the world, the basic idea is so easy to express, the path to the mountaintop so easy to envision, the image of you, arms raised in victory at the summit, so easy to believe in. The idea of a single “unified hub” program has been the Everest of personal communications software for a long time, and there are a lot of colorful company logos in the Rainbow Valley leading up to the rarefied air of the peak.

The two best mobile messaging clients ever made shared that vision, the same fundamental insight; if you simply put everything in one list, and by default your replies go out on the same medium the message came in on, then the lives of the people using that tool are dramatically simpler and easier.

So, why don’t you just do that? How hard could it be?

Those two clients were the unified messaging hubs on the Palm Pre and the Blackberry Z10. For the dozens (dozens!) of us who ever had a chance to play with them, they were incredible. Both evoked that near-magical “oh, of course” feeling, that rare sense you’re seeing a gift from someone who knows you so well that they could give you a beautiful, elegant answer to a problem you barely realized you had.

Even today, if you can find one and make it work, they feel like a little glimpse of a better possible future. You’d have a hard time doing that, though; they were born, lived very short and very unhappy lives and died on Palm’s WebOS and RIM’s (now Blackberry’s) BBOS respectively. The programs, the OSes and hardware they ran on, the services backing them and the companies that created them no longer exist.

And sure, there’s a lot to be learned - and a lot to be said - about the companies behind them. For example, when somebody in a suit says “co-CEO”, you should run the other way as fast as your feet will carry you. We know that now, nobody needs to re-discover that. But there was more to it than just that.

One of the most unexpected but deep-seated changes that the mobile app store model brought to computing was how it enabled end-to-end isolation of the relationship between the human and the service they’re using. That is, you can use one program that can only see its own data store and connect to one service on the far end and - for a long time - that was it. This wasn’t an accident; this architecture was a response, and maybe a rebuttal, to a world of open protocols that offered simplicity, security and control in exchange for the uncertain possibilities you were giving up, or so the story went.

To its credit, this model solved an important problem that the Web hadn’t, and arguably still hasn’t: developers making money. This sudden alternative to advertising-revenue models, combined with a mobile smartphone audience that in its earliest days was self-selected for affluence and the promise of a consistent, well-supported development environment was a very compelling offer.

Compelling enough, it turned out, that very quickly the one-app-per-service mindset came to dominate the developer conversation in lockstep with the domination of the very-vertical mobile device space. This per-app isolation, baked into the metal in your hand and stretching all the way to the service on the far side of the net quietly became the default setting. It’s not just that a polyglot communication tool would seem strange in that environment: it’s structurally incompatible with everything that ecosystem promises. It’s not just that this program doesn’t exist; the problem is that it can’t.

Except. Maybe. But.

Here we are, years later, and it’s starting to look like the ground under these market forces - the isolation, the lock in, limited or nonexistent interoperability and all their downstream consequences that all seemed axiomatic for a while, like fundamental truths, might be starting to shift. Some of that is regulatory, but a lot of it is deeply cultural, and deeply personal.

There have been tipping points, as there usually are, but the trends are hard to ignore, as are the costs. The early idealism of the social network hasn’t panned out, the shine has definitely worn off the connecting every human to every other human in the world and the human costs of unmoderated scale, centralized mediocrity and the pervasive awful-people-and-their-awful-robots problems have become impossible to ignore.

A big part of this, of course, is the collapse of the idea of safety, or “Masnick’s Impossibility Theorem”: Content moderation at scale is impossible to do well. I used to believe that this was a fundamental failure mode of federated systems, how much the burden of safety shifts to the individual, but in retrospect that was a naive view; the same burden ultimately accrues to centralized systems as well. If people need to have enough agency over their situation, over their connections, that they can protect themselves and their friends, where can they go?

Strangely enough, it’s not just people asking themselves that. Communities, even the democracies of the world, are starting to ask the same questions. If it really is an information economy, how much agency can we give up over who we are and how we want to talk to each other and still be who we say we want to be, or become who we aspire to become?

Personally and politically, these questions are sort of the same shape. And in both arenas the kind of people who don’t settle for default settings have stopped asking what we can do with what we have, and started asking what’s next. And so far - whether it’s a foundational assumption about your audience or a race to get ahead of regulatory constraint - the idea that people should be able to get their information out of one thing so they can put it into another thing is turning out to be the table stakes of those conversations.

And that’s the interesting thing about the IconFactory experiment: the question seems to be, once that data transfer becomes possible, what becomes possible next? If we put the person in the middle of this hub-and-spoke communications model, instead of the hardware or the service, what happens? Does that work at all? And if it does, what then?

I’ve talked a lot about the hidden genius of the Matrix team’s approach to moderation, that you can subscribe yourself or your community to other people’s moderation decisions. That is, if you trust someone’s judgment about who or what is or is not welcome in their forums, those decisions can be immediately reflected in your own. As I’ve written previously:

“When a site you trust drops the hammer on some bad actor, that ban can be adopted almost immediately by your site and your community as well. You don’t have to have ever seen that person or have whatever got them banned hit you in the eyes. You don’t even need to know they exist. All you need to do is decide you trust that other site’s judgment and magically someone persona non grata on their site is precisely that grata on yours.”

“Another way to say that is: among people or communities who trust each other in these decisions, an act of self-defense becomes, seamlessly and invisibly, an act of collective defense. No more everyone needing to fight their own fights alone forever, no more getting isolated and picked off one at a time, weakest first; shields-up means shields-up for everyone. Effective, practical defensive solidarity; it’s the most important new idea I’ve seen in social software in years. Every federated system should build out their own version, and it’s very clear to me, at least, that this is going to be the table stakes of a federated future very soon.”

More than just easily sharing content, the Matrix system lets you share decisions. And another way to say that, maybe a bit pretentiously, is that instead of just sharing nouns, you can share verbs. And this possibility is the reason the Iconfactory experiment and the dozens of others flying under the radar right now are so interesting; not just on its own merits but because of what it might enable, of what becomes possible next.

If it is suddenly a person in the middle of this hub-and-spoke communications model, instead of the hardware or the service, what can they share? What would they want to share? Memes, sure, but maybe safety, security, maybe intention? What does a community look like - what does agency mean, what does mutual support look like - from that vantage?

In a world of centralized, vertical services, without data mobility and interop, there isn’t even a way to ask those questions, much less iterate on or even speculate about the answers. But there’s a possible future here, with humans and communities at the center of it, that doesn’t feel impossible anymore.

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