Commoning Innovation: in Internet Interaction - Part 1

Chris Harris

Chris Harris / January 17, 2022

10 min read

A.K.A. : (Enduring) Real-Time Vibes

Part 1 - Emergence & Innovation

This report series details innovations in instant messaging and internet interaction in general. I present the state of the art and propose design principles for networks allowing for innovative interaction, and speculate on the future.

This first part introduces the essentiality of instant messaging (I.M.), presents recent innovations, and describes some problems with closed ecosystems.

IRC-IRL Emergence

With the dawn of IRC in '88, computers took popular grasp of our semi-real-time communication exchange. These minimal-viable cybernetic-peripherals took up the encoding & routing labor in exchange long distance, real time, text messages, and our instant messaging interfaces have enjoyed reoccurring and reinvented mainstream success since.

This report grounds itself in textual messaging while applying to much of internet communication and interaction at large.

Text messaging is a one of the simplest and most accessible mixes of real life and the internet, borrowing just enough of real life's dialectics while also able to reify the town square for semi-synchronous group conversation and bulletins. Text messaging alone is rarely enough to maintain modern, real-time vibes, but it is the common meeting point.

Whether in DMs or groups, our always-on writing interfaces now allow us a punctuation into each other’s experience of reality, with varying levels of synchronicity.

  • We send messages to varying configurations of parents, friends, colleagues, collaborators, partners and lovers. We also send messages to ourselves, future selves and past selves.

  • We create, join and pull each other into emerging group chats relevant to our interests.

  • We branch out of big group chats for pop-up events, create side-channel discussion groups, subscribe and sign up, create and curate shared photo albums, send files and resources, ask questions, and receive answers. We lurk in groups that may be interesting to us.

  • Increasingly not only do we entertain each other but also make decisions, coordinate, and even vote on how to run organisations.

  • We send each other short voice messages and tiny personal podcasts.

  • We share our plans and physical locations as we coalesce out of the internet into real life.

Innovative Interactions

Innovation chugs along at medium speed and effectivity behind the (soon to be historic) closed gardens of instant messaging. Feature's are spurred largely by a race for dominance and feature mimicry.

Our messaging tools are thankfully getting better. While not a perfect cooperative world yet, there are some developments to applaud.

For instance, encryption is more widespread, knowledge operations are richer, and user options are more configurable.

Attention management, interface adaptability, and data portability still have a long way to go.

Some key categories of mostly closed source instant messaging innovation follow below:

Encryption & Privacy

End-to-end encryption has become standard, with large thanks to Signal. While other closed-source apps often implement encryption, there’s no telling what happens on the client side of an app once your encryption is decoded to display the message to you.

There's no telling how much of your personality is quantized from your decoded messages and sent back to the server as keywords, image analysis and thought vectors to be shared with advertising partners - all messages are free game once decrypted in a closed source application.

There’s also no telling what back-doors might be in custom encryption when apps do not have external audits. No telling what ‘Trending on Telegram’ dashboards the creators might be listening in to.

Balancing operational security and simplicity of usability is something platforms and people are still learning too. We Sometimes jovially compare our 'secret emoji' keys to verify with each other, and rely on different a colour or badge for indicating secure chats, though we rarely verify our initial connections out of band to prove the first chat is not intercepted.

We often have good privacy from middle men but only quasi-privacy form 'the man'.

Recall Operations

Internet messages have always had some level of persistence to help us communicate across interrupted time. Whether the persistence of all our conversations forever is desirable, it is the common default and from that the usability challenge arises to add enough structure and linking to make them retrievable and useful.

Trending features offer us some level of control beyond this persistent default, popularized by security first apps such as Signal, many clients (e.g. Telegram) now also allow us to send disappearing messages for sensitive content, subject to vanish after a period of elapsed time.

Searching across all our chat histories for a certain phrase is a common offering now, with the likes of Slack providing this in the cloud as a premium feature, and Telegram, etc providing this on-device for free.

Some basic ways of categorizing audios, files and links away from chronological history into their own timeline, allow us a better way to retrieve and browse.

For the most part still our sentimentalities, feedback, tasks, resources and reminders all flow indistinguishably into the same policy of linear chat room storage.

Turning our fragmented message histories into useful knowledge by making them searchable, discoverable, actionable and available as needed, is still a hard problem in social user experience design, at least while tapping on our low bandwidth peripherals.

Networked Thought

Networked thought recorded between people suggests creating knowledge through linked dialogue in multidimensional digital space.

Threads are one such short trail of networked thought and Slack popularized a solution of easy channel threading. The solution of threads presents another problem, the choice of when to thread, and suddenly there are more pockets to check rather than just scrolling and skimming for updates. advances this hugely with re-mixable threads - threads that can be created retrospectively by grouping already sent messages together, re-homing existing messages by moving them over from other threads they have since outgrown. Threads are also optionally given automatic titles. This allows chats to be sent free-form and then easily re-organised as appropriate.

With a human in the loop combined with this malleable structures we're allowed to think first, re-categorize later for simple action and knowledge creation.

Quill chat example remixable retroactive threads knowledge graph

Knovigator experiments with everything as a thread, allowing infinite threading on messages, laid out on a clunky searchable graph space, in what is surely the first of many networked tools for instant messaging yet to come.

Knovigator example conversational knowledge graph

Ultimately, it’s still yet to be seen how to make the knowledge that emerges from chat really actionable, shareable and operational.

I'm sure we'll soon see more experiments in conversational knowledge graphs. Likely from Roam, if the open-source community doesn't beat them to it.

Attention Management

There are a few (but not enough) innovations in ways to manage the nervous-system overwhelm, created by exposure to a running pipe full of instant messages and interaction streams.

Keyword notifications are nice for monitoring a group chat fire-hose, and mentions help explicitly reach out to a single person in an otherwise noisy environment. distinguishes nicely between making @ mentions passive by default - no notification until opening the app, and !! as active mentions that send notifications, for time-sensitive requests.

Quill chat passive mention

The Twist 2.0 redesign includes threads as an organisational principle too but with the inclusion of a global Inbox as an operational list. Their UX biases towards responding asynchronously to preserve flow and sanity, attempting to make semi-real-time communication less demanding

Twist chat inbox

Meanwhile takes this to a hilariously impractical opposite route and requires a synchronous experience both staring at the screen seeing each other type characters in a box in real time rather than stare at each other.

Honk chat example real time

Attention management still has a long way to go. We rarely have any control over how often our devices retreive messages from different sources, and little control of the incoming stream for different contexts. see my previous blog Calm Tech: Push and Pull Messaging for more

I'm not the only person I know who is 'most days too scared to even open Discord' and who's Telegram groups are 'out of control', plus the long tail of overlooked secondary streams.

Novel Mediums

Instant messaging, as well as affording us operations and logistics mainly provides an entertaining way of getting to know and keeping in touch with each other.

The richness of media formats and spectrum of active-passive connection to each other is one very obvious innovation.

For a post-phone-call generation, instant voice messages serve a spectrum of uses from short 'in-a-hurry' updates, to 'otherwise-confusing-by-text' explanations, through to intimacy of another’s voice on you own listening terms. It's hard to think the clunky telephone answering machine would turn into us each having a radio show to each other.

The lines blur these days between asynchronous instant messaging and semi-synchronous social media at large, since messages and media can be shared in a group, shared to my followers, forwarded, retweeted, broadcast and streamed live.

Clubhouse tried to make semi spontaneous audio rooms a social experience but the hype hasn't seemed to endure. As with Stories on Instagram, audio rooms in Twitter now live where your existing audience does - spelling an uncertain future for Clubhouse. Live audio channels in otherwise text-based messaging like in Discord can be a nice hybrid, albeit also a necessarily synchronous experience. A popular paradigm now replicated in many apps, horizontal gene transfer.

Whether the future includes more avatar chats, board games on Figma or moving characters on a 2D gameboard. Innovation in modular and portable multiplayer miniverses see Moving Castles would be nicer to see than one monoploy on the Metaverse. What's for sure is new mediums will keep arising and we'll keep combining games and communication.

Proprietary Problems

As we relentlessly communicate in semi-real-time text, audio, and video, our digital interaction flows through various instant messaging providers.

Not only do our lives transit through these messaging mediums but they are shaped by them too, so it's important we have agency over both their design and their capacity to transform.

This widespread rule over a mass medium of coordination affords a sly secrecy and a corrupting omnipotence.

Without the agency over how our communication systems are designed and controlled, we run the risk of being lured in to innovative apps where proprietary providers can capture data and attention in a corrupting level of control, secrecy and a stagnant hold on innovation.

In the next section I talk about some innovation principles for innovation and commoning, which I argue go hand in hand. I believe we need better ways of slicing and dicing the fire-hose of incoming messages that work with our undulations of attention, focus, context, interest and absence, and to be able to do so without needing to navigate to 6 different platforms unless those platforms specifically help us contextualize, focus and be timefull. This is not in the main interest for most providers, under the current data-as-oil freemium paradigms.

see part two (out soon) for network and design precursors for commons innovation in internet interaction that is open to many.

Collecting future co-conspirators

for conversations not 'content'