Flip Test 1971 | Email versus Journal

January 15, 2007 · · Posted by Greg Lloyd

Andrew McAfee asks a great question in A Technology Flip Test: Introducing Channels in a World of Platforms: "... imagine that current corporate collaboration and communication technologies were exclusively E2.0 platforms -- blogs, wikis, etc. -- and all of a sudden a crop of new channel technologies -- email, instant messaging, text messaging -- became available. In other words, imagine the inverse of the present situation. What would happen? How, in the flip-test universe, would the new channel technologies be received?"

He imagines that users would "...adopt the new channel technology for private communications, but not for much more than that." He also imagines that many would hate the new channel technology and demand that it be kept out since it would be too easy to leak sensitive information, and would encourage sexual harassment and other inappropriate behavior.

McAfee writes: "For managers accustomed to platforms where all contributions are immediately and universally visible and traceable, channel technologies would seem scary. I could imagine that a common response, upon hearing about them, would be something like 'No way. The risks of email and IM are too great. If people need to talk privately, let them pick up the phone. We'll set up a few email accounts so that we can exchange information with the outside world, but we're sticking with our platforms for internal communication.'"

I think "using channel technology for private communications, but not for much more than that," is spot on, and compatible with what I see using our product internally. When something needs to be said for any shared corporate purpose, it's either written directly to the TeamPage space, or cc'd if it's outbound communication to an external party.

One-to-one internal email is used for infrequent private communication or an occasional shoulder tap. Instant messaging is used for one-to-one or many-to-many conversation, often with pasted permalinks to anchor the discussion to posted content. One-to-many internal email is rarely used.

Email, IM, and syndication feeds are used as notification channels driven by posted content, either in the form of a periodic digest or real time push when a significant event occurs.

I believe the flip from writing for a channel addressed to specific individuals, to writing for a permissioned group - or the general public - is more subtle and interesting. It's ironic that in a slightly different universe, Professor McAfee's flip test might have run in the opposite direction.

The first network email was likely sent in 1971 by Ray Tomlinson of BBN. He adapted a local inter-user mail program to use an experimental file transfer program called CPYNET for network transport. In those days, basics like character set conversion so users of different computer systems could simply read text files cross-platform was a big deal.

At the same time, Doug Engelbart's NLS was being used as the first network collaboration platform - part of SRI's Network Information Center (NIC) on the ARPANet. NLS (later AUGMENT) foreshadowed blogs, wiki's and most of the collaborative hypertext technology that followed over the next thirty five years, see Traction Roots - Doug Engelbart.

In the early seventies, I believe the greatest technical limitations to network collaboration were fast (non-printing) terminal access, ubiquitous hosting of content, and ubiquitous cross-site linking. NLS could be used with a remote terminal interface, but I don't know if cross-site linking of content among NLS sites was ever developed or used - I would not be surprised if the answer is "yes". Unlike Tim Berners-Lee's much simpler http / HTML protocols, NLS was a complex program running on a few DEC10 or DEC20 mainframe platforms.

The learning curve - and potential return - for NLS was steep, which certainly limited its growth and acceptance. But I'd guess that email dominated the early internet because it has simpler base technology and a simpler user model that requires less overt cooperation to function - albeit at a lower level.

Then as now, email's user model boils down to shoveling bits from one person's bucket to another, and letting each recipient figure out how to organize and use every copy. Each email message is like a personal copy of a paper letter, which you can read, ignore, file, shred, or use for any purpose. It gets interesting when you embed the email channel in a social system where you have to reply or respond to at least some messages to live, prosper, and have a life. It gets unmanageable when you try to use email for long lived N x M conversations.

Today, the user model for a collaboration platform is not much more complicated. You can reach out and change bits in a place that others can see. In some cases many people can change the same bits. Group access to the same bits makes the social interactions more interesting from start, and even more interesting as groups grow and evolve. The collaboration platform model is richer and more valuable, but in most cases requires groups with a shared goal or purpose to make it work well - for Enterprise 2.0 a business purpose certainly counts.

Clay Shirky says: Prior to the Internet, the last technology that had any real effect on the way people sat down and talked together was the table. There was no technological mediation for group conversations. The closest we got was the conference call, which never really worked right - Clay Shirky, A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy

Update Remembering Doug Engelbart, 30 January 1925 - 2 July 2013


And for NLS / Augment in the "Mother of all Demos", see
And here's what Enterprise 2.0 looked like in 1968 | Dealing lightning with both hands…

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