Russell on Communicontent


I was going to reply inline to this, but it's much better to rant on here and have the text ready for future reference.

Russell's main point is that user-authored content might be one of the drivers for mobile data usage. The limited UI, however, forces us to classify that user data and its dependencies, and to do that meta-data is essential.

Content? Hah.

So far, so good. I also happen to agree with him on the overall uselessness of MMS, but I blame that on overcomplex phone UIs and the fact that the service itself was crippled by design through the use of server-side format conversion (looking back, MMS should have been designed more as simplified SMTP/POP3 mail than WAP-based "webmail", but that is another story entirely).

But I have to disagree on "communicontent". Having been part of a series of content-driven ventures since the Web portal days, I don't think there is enough of a business model on any purely content-driven venture, and especially not ones that rely on user-generated content, no matter how much metadata and semantic processing you throw at it.

(I happen to follow the fields of knowledge representation and inference engines as a hangover from my AI years, and despite there being some amazing stuff in the works, it ain't all there yet as far as, say, "mobile personal semantic webs" are concerned.)

Yes, ringtones and wallpapers are big business, but solely due to a factor of scale (and an increasing percentage of disposable income in some countries and market segments). But they're not really content - thats a misnomer coined by clueless marketeers. Ringtones and wallpapers are media, not meaning. They have "fun" and social conotations, they help people make their phones "unique" and "personal", but they are not news, stock data, or communication, no matter how artsy they get.

And they will become an even bigger business as media companies muscle in and start making complete songs and music videos available (Robbie William's recent launch is a case in point).

Weeding the Chaff

As far as user-generated content goes, we don't need to go deep into the technology aspects, either: There is far too much meaningless crud and idle chatter to wade through to extract genuinely useful content - and even then, you'd be hard pressed to summarize it and cross-link it with other relevant nodes. Just take a look at the weblog space, where there are around twenty people on the world that actually argue about a specific topic, with thousands of others simply linking to them and adding "yeah, right on".

Sure, there are thresholds you can set to distinguish between linking and "communication". But how do you go about rating that "communication"? Will you use a Technorati-like approach and wait until someone else mentions or links to that communication? Rely on Bayesian classification to weed out the chaff based on ratings culled from current news sources? Use personalised criteria?

People Want Phones To Be Useful

I don't think the average Joe/Jane on the street wants "communicontent". I think he/she wants services, like checking e-mail, checking their bank balance, paying for groceries with their phone and getting directions to the nearest pharmacy. And yes, all those have been tried already, but have failed due to asinine implementations, extremely poor interface design and vendor lobbies, not due to lack of usefulness.

Joe doesn't want to author content on his phone. He wants it to make calls and work as a communicator (using IM, SMS or e-mail), but does not necessarily want to have everything he types "classified" in some fashion. I concede he is likely to want to search for data, but don't see any point in archiving every line of idle chatter he types in the #football IRC channel, or sharing his e-mail with other people (you know, Russell, there are such things as mailing-lists - Google doesn't need to start a "sharing service" for e-mail...)

(Jane, like all women, might well be a bit more organized, but my main point is that neither of them needs the hassle of using something like an always-on, mobile edition of Lifeblog on their phones.)

Joe would probably like something like the Nokia/6630's dinky little "muvee" editor, which applies a set of pre-defined effects to photos and generates a .3gp video to send to Jane (or, more likely, his #football buddies). But even that has so little meaning that it's not really content - no matter how rich it is.

A Niche Thing, At Best

Only geeks like us want "communicontent", and even then it has to be an extremely focused and very personalised form of it. That's why I got invoved in newspipe and spent some time getting webpipe off the ground. It works for me, and coupled with my Blackberry, it fulfills those visions we had years back of "an universal communicator" that lets you get at all the information and entertainment you might need on the go.

But even then, there is only so much content you can take in (and work you can do) when mobile. I've always scoffed at people who take their Excel sheets with them and try to work on them on a dinky little PDA, for instance. Or, lately, at obsessive mobloggers who spend all their time at conferences blogging about the current presentation rather than actually pay attention - or, even better, asking questions and try to start a meaningful debate.

Sometimes, the best thing to do is simply to shut all your gadgets off, look out the window and let your brain (yes, that sloshy thing between your ears) sort out the metadata itself.

It's still the best classification tool we have, and we seem to be misusing it of late - with RSS and the web, we are spending far too much time obssessively raking in information we cannot actually use to accomplish anything, when we should probably reason things out ourselves.

I don't think adding metadata and automagic classification will help us do more than wade through even more variations on the same data, on a mobile phone or on a desktop pc - after all, we are obsessive little creatures who just love clicking on buttons and watching things move.

It's a monkey thing.

Just like the "Me Too" posts and cross-links that will come out of this discussion, I guess...