The Industry

Facebook as a Communications Alternative

Facebook MessengerThe way that people and businesses communicate is changing rapidly. I can use my own family as a good example of this. In tech terms I am old school and my preferred mode of communications is email, plus I talk to a lot of people each week on the phone or in person. I only send two or three business text messages out each week. I send this blog out by Twitter, but I rarely communicate with anybody using Twitter. I use social media mostly for friends and family.

But then I look at my teenage daughter who is very representative of her generation. She never emails, and I mean never. She will talk to somebody on the phone only if there is no alternative (meaning to me). She texts a ton – and not just with SMS or other texts on her phone, but also using various messenger services and social networks as well. She will only use Facebook to share things with a few of us oldsters. And she exchanges silly pictures and such with friends using several picture and video services.

There is almost no crossover between her generation and mine and her generation looks upon all the ways my generation communicates as old and obsolete. This certainly has to put a shiver up the spine of anybody in the business of supplying traditional communications. I saw a survey this week that said that 25% of people don’t use their cellphones to make phone calls – and it’s not too hard to figure out which generation that is.

I’ve been hearing it said for probably two decades that telephony is a commodity and it’s finally starting to come true. For example, Facebook is making a big push to convince small businesses to communicate with their customers through Messenger. They aren’t doing this because there is money to made in the communication, but rather in the local advertising that think will come along with businesses making them their primary communications tool.

Facebook is starting into this venture with huge potential because they claim to already have over 50 million small business pages on their social network. They recently gave businesses the ability to communicate with people directly on Messenger rather than forcing people to post public messages. They are also working on click-to-Messenger from ads so that a customer can communicate instantly with an advertiser. They are also considering allowing the option for ‘blast’ messaging where a business could send messages to many followers at the same time (for pay of course).

And all of this is being driven by wanting to lure more companies to advertise on Facebook and by the desire to keep users within the Facebook realm when they want to do ecommerce. The communications part of this is an afterthought. But it’s clear that Facebook’s vision of future communications doesn’t require a telephone number or an email address and that anybody inside Facebook can interact with others directly with Messenger.

They are not the only big web company that wants to do this. There are changes happening everywhere. There was a lot of talk last year about building free voice connections into a number of browsers. Twitter is lengthening the size of their messages to allow people to have longer and more meaningful communications as an alternative to email. Even LinkedIn is enabling businesses to send bulk messages to their contacts.

And every one of these trends is a direct assault on traditional communications. When the younger generations are in the workforce they are still going to want to communicate in these new ways instead of with emails or phone calls (and many already do).

I saw another survey recently that said that people become attached to the way that they learn to watch video. It said that kids who grew up mostly watching YouTube are not buying traditional cable TV and continue to prefer YouTube and alternate sources of video. And I think the same thing is true for general communications. If my daughter gets into the workplace and is forced to use email she will begrudgingly do so. But given an alternative she will communicate in the way that is most comfortable and productive to her – and that is a world without traditional telecom.


AT&T’s Vision of the Future in 1993

This link is to some old AT&T commercials from 1993. You might remember these as visions of future technology that AT&T was going to bring us. It’s really interesting to look at their predictions and see how they did. I assume that in 1993 that AT&T probably had folks in Bell Labs looking at all of these ideas.

To put these predictions into perspective, 1993 is thought of now as the launch date of the public web. That’s the year that the Mosaic browser was launched that allowed for the combination of text and graphics and the creation of web pages. Before then the web was still something used mostly by techies and there was very little appreciation for how quickly this would explode onto the market. Here are a few of the more interesting claims from AT&T in 1993:

Borrowed a book from thousands of miles away. The video shows somebody viewing a scanned book. AT&T missed the popularity of e-readers but generally got this right.

Driven across the country without stopping for directions. The US government didn’t release commercial access to the GPS system until 2000. AT&T obviously believed this was going to happen.

Sent someone a fax from the beach. I don’t think AT&T can be faulted too badly for missing the popularity of email and PDF files.

Paid a toll without slowing down. This was not a daring prediction since Norway had implemented the first electronic toll collection system in 1991.

Bought concert tickets from a cash machine. It’s funny to think of having to stand in line at an ATM to buy things on the web. I’m already always annoyed at a person who doesn’t know how to use an ATM and I can’t imagine standing behind somebody who is shopping.

Tucked your baby in from a phone booth. AT&T tried numerous times to push picture phones and it never caught on with the public. They envisioned video phone booths talking to AT&T video phones in the home. In 1993 it was probably hard to envision Skype and FaceTime and the near death of phone booths.

Opened doors with the sound of your voice. This can be done now but is not very popular. But opening your door with a smartphone is starting to gain a little traction.

Carried your medical history in your wallet. This never happened and for various privacy reasons hasn’t even been done very well yet in the cloud from the doctor’s office. You still have to fill out forms for half an hour to see a new doctor.

Attended a meeting in your bare feet. This was a prediction of Skype, but using a picture phone instead of a PC or smartphone.

Watched a movie you wanted the minute you wanted. They foresaw digital transmission of video. 1993 saw the very early trials of cable modems, but DOCSIS cable modems and DSL did not become commercially viable until the end of the 1990s. But AT&T obviously believed that data speeds would get much faster.

Learned special things from far-away places. This supposed interactive distance learning which has become common with the web and which many think will eventually be the primary form of education.

Overall AT&T didn’t do too badly in their predictions, and as the company that owned Bell Labs you would expect them to have insight to the next decade of technology. But they did fail to forecast that cable companies would kick their butts in the marketplace and become the dominant data providers.

Current News Technology

Can You Really Multitask?

This blog is a bit off my normal beat, but I’ve read several articles lately about the effects of technology on our brains. I think the findings of these studies are things that you will find interesting.

I think most people will agree that we are busier today than we have ever been before. Not only do we lead hectic lives, but we have compounded our lives with connections through our smartphones and computers to coworkers, family and friends all throughout the day and night.

I meet people all of the time who say that they are good multitaskers and who say they that they are good at handling the new clutter in our modern personal and  work lives. There are days when I feel I am good at it and days when I definitely am not.

Researchers at MIT say that multitasking is an illusion. Earl Miller, a neuroscientist there says that our brains are not wired to multitask. What you think of as multitasking is really the brain doing only one thing at a time and switching quickly between tasks. He says there is a price to pay for doing this because what we call multitasking leads to the production of the stress hormone cortisol as well as adrenaline. Multitasking creates a dopamine feedback loop which rewards the brain for losing focus and searching for the next stimulation. The bottom line is that multitasking leads to less focus and makes us less efficient.

Miller says that multitasking is a diabolical illusion that makes us feel like we are getting things done, when instead we are just keeping the brain busy. When we multitask we don’t do any of the tasks as well as if we stopped and concentrated on them one at a time. And it’s addictive. Those of us old enough can remember back to a simpler time when we often made choices not to do things. If we were reading a book or watching a TV show we chose not to let ourselves get easily distracted. But since multitasking rewards the brain for getting distracted, we now routinely will break into everything we are doing to read an email, look to see who texted, see who commented on something we said on Facebook or Twitter.

I decided to test myself and I decided to watch a one-hour show on Netflix to see if I could watch it end-to-end without distraction. I was amazed at how poorly I did. Every few minutes I found myself wanting to go do something else. And a few times I almost automatically clicked on a different application on the computer. And I wanted to stop a lot more than I did and it was a real effort to stay focused on the show I was watching. I thought this would be easy, but apparently I am now addicted to multitasking. I wonder how many of you can do better?

One of the reasons we have gotten pulled into multitasking is a new expectation that we are always available. It used to be easy to drop out of sight by simply walking out of range of the telephone. People were not surprised to miss you when they called and leaving voice messages was a big deal. But today the expectation is that we have our smart phone with us and turned on at all times, and through that we can be called, texted, emailed and reached on demand.

Research shows that multitasking kills our concentration and is more detrimental to our short-term memory than smoking marijuana. Cannabinol, a chief ingredient of pot interferes directly with memory brain receptors and directly interferes with our ability to concentrate on several things at one. But research have shown that if you break off concentrating on a task to answer an email that your IQ temporarily drops ten points. And cumulative multitasking degrades your brain’s performance more than smoking pot.

Researchers at Stanford have shown that if you learn something new while multitasking that the information goes to the wrong part of the brain. For instance, if you read work emails while doing something else like watching TV that the information from the emails goes to the striatum, the place where we normally store skills and physical memories and not where we store ideas and data memory. If not interrupted, the same emails would be stored in the hippocampus, which is essentially our brain’s hard drive that is good at retrieving data when we need it.

Multitasking comes at a big cost. Asking the brain to constantly shift tasks burns up a lot of glucose in the brain which we need to stay focused. So multitasking can lead to feeling tired and disoriented after even a short time. I used to believe that deep thinking caused your brain to get tired, but staying on one task actually uses far less energy that constantly shifting from one task to another.

This makes me worry about what we are doing to our children who now multitask at an early age. Perhaps there is some hope since one of the new trends among many teenagers is a rebellion against technology, and that is probably a healthy thing. If the pressure to be always connected is hard on adults, one can only imagine the peer pressure it creates among teens. People of my age use email as our primary method of communication while teens almost exclusively use text. The biggest problem with texting, according to the researchers is that it demands hyper-immediacy and you are expected to return a response as soon as you get a text.

I have started my own little rebellion against multitasking. I am not checking emails more than a few times a day and I rarely check to see if somebody has texted me. After all, I need to save some time for Twitter!

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