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Life and Personal Tech and Culture

I Miss Emails

Every now and then I search my email for an obscure keyword or phrase that was at one time relevant to my interests — ‘AIIM’ when I worked as a records management consultant, or ‘dinner’ to look back at when we planned for such things by email. I even have chains going back 15 years where people are discussing something forwarded by someone and that resulted in a never-ending sequence of Reply-All’s.

In a way, I miss that.

These days, people send quick instant messages through one of the dozens of ‘social media’ apps that nearly everyone is assumed to be a member of. Can’t remember the contact details of that colleague from 10 years ago? Search on LinkedIn. What about that classmate in grad school? Chances are that they’re on Facebook.

On the other hand, it is almost foolhardy to assume that the person you used to email years ago is still using that same email address — their job might have changed, or they could’ve switched to that awesome new email service that has better spam detection, or perhaps they just wanted to build a new identity as ‘[email protected]’ is just not cool anymore. Foolhardy because composing emails takes a bit of effort and time. You don’t want to waste that effort on thoughtfully writing something when you’re not even sure if it would land in the right inbox. Sending a quick, and abrupt, ‘hey’ in an instant message has no baggage.

Some of my earliest emails with family members are full of pictures, address changes, various forwards, and even videos and recipes. Almost all emails are more than a couple sentences long. They have nice salutations. On the contrary, instant messages are spread around various apps — iMessages for some, WhatsApp for others, LinkedIn for a few friends and even family, and so on.

Whereas my emails are easily searchable, finding the right message or the context it was sent in is terribly hard on almost every messaging app. Searching messages is consistently a terrible experience. It’s like the services were designed to be ephemeral and impersonal. Whereas emails are blocks of conversation, messages are just blocks of sentences punctuated by an image or two, or by a totally different context with its own punctuations.

Emails are fun to read; instant messages are just blobs of stuff.

In other words, most of my instant message conversations are a bad example of object oriented programming. The conversations are just a set of base classes, then subclassed, then extended, sometimes composited. What was supposed to be quick and convenient has turned into something unwieldy and, as a result, not worth archiving and preserving.

My old emails, though, are wonderful memories.

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Tech and Culture

Facebook Pages as a Website Alternative

We have been getting our feet wet with starting our first business over the past few weeks; it has been fun; it has been exhilarating. While in the digital world you measure performance by metrics such as user counts and reviews, in the real world, people come back to you and give you verbal compliments. They refer your products to others who might enjoy them as well.

It is something I wish that I had done earlier!

Now, with a business comes the overhead of various things, one of which is building and maintaining your business’s online presence. Websites are hard enough, not to mention keeping them safe and secure, that a lot of businesses end up with terrible websites that take a lot of time and money to get done by outside contractors.

We had the same dilemma as we purchased a domain and then spent time and money buying and learning various WordPress themes to figure out the best for us. This is even before you start generating content that would ultimately draw customers in. In our events driven business, a lot of this content is in the form of photos and videos. The website also needs to have things like calendar feeds and a way to sign people up for your upcoming events. It would be great to be able to do live videos and respond to people in real time.

Clearly, this is not a simple website we are talking about.

After a lot of tweaking the theme, I came upon an idea – how about redirecting every visitor on our website to our Facebook Page. We needed the Page anyway since that’s how we communicate with our customers and share pictures. Might as well just make it our business website. The only thing missing is email, but that’s an easy problem to solve with the help of any business email provider that supports custom domains.

Facebook Pages provide blogging capabilities, photo albums, apps for business owners as well as consumers, live messaging, and above all, a marketing and analytics platform that really helps in reaching out to the best customers. I am not sure why they haven’t already started selling branded webpages as a service, much like their FB at Work product.

Setting up required a little bit of effort because they don’t natively provide this as a service. This means that you still need to set up your web server to redirect requests to Facebook. At this time, I haven’t set up any custom links on the server, but there is potential in the future to set up links like <yourdomain>/blog to redirect to your Facebook Page’s Notes section.

Now I can focus all my time and energy on one medium. This will definitely change in the future as the business evolves and it would not be feasible to expect every site visitor to have a Facebook login, or be able to use it for e-commerce. Hopefully, Facebook would start offering a more business-ready toolkit by that point.

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Tech and Culture

Messaging Applications and Going Back to the Basics

Another day another backdoor in a messaging application. It seems like the more you care about your privacy the easier it gets for state actors to snoop upon your communications.

I believe it is time that we bring back the old instant messaging paradigm. If you recall from your early Yahoo! Messenger/AIM days, instant messaging was always synchronous. The services provided ways to send messages between users, but their main implementation was akin to a directory service. While you could look up if a contact was offline, you could only send them a message if they were online and available.

As these IM networks became more advanced and popular, services began offering the capability to send ‘offline’ messages. These messages, by their nature, would be stored on the company’s server until the recipient went online and was able to download them. This was a diversion from the quasi-synchronous behavior to one that was more a store-and-forward system, just like email. I believe that one of the reasons for this change was that as more people started obtaining always-on broadband connections, it became harder for messaging software to directly connect with other computers. This is because due to IPv4 design challenges, computers sharing an Internet IP address had to be put behind address translators and that made it necessary to employ an intermediary service that the clients could connect to. This solved the connectivity issue while also affording the capability to send offline messages.

Of course, any time you introduce a store-and-forward system into your communications, you are opening it up for easier surveillance. I say easy because the listener/hacker does not have to be listening in real-time. They could just get access to the store system and read the communication asynchronously.

This was also a time when security and privacy was something no one even thought of.

With the current privacy climate, I think it is time to get back to the basics. Messaging should be like making a phone call. If the other person is offline or not available, the messages need to either be dropped or be unable to be sent. This is the best way to protect privacy.

Now that IPv6 is gaining traction and helps alleviate the address translation issues with the ‘old Internet’, it is all the while easier to build such a chat system without much effort. Forget secure messaging services; the best security is one that you control.

So how would this work?

Server:

Open source, based on an open directory standard that would allow people to indicate availability by virtue of a unique identifier. What this identifier can be is an implementation detail, but a phone number or email sounds like a good idea.

When clients connect to the directory server, they can query a particular contact’s availability status. Additionally, they will be able to advertise their network address so that other clients could establish a connection directly for messaging. No store-and-forward.

Client:

Open source, based on open connectivity standards. The client would tell the directory server that a contact with the specified identifier is online and ready to receive messages/voice/video at their particular address.

In order to send or receive messages, the usual encryption techniques would be followed. I envision an extension to the existing public key infrastructure, but for people.

This is my general idea and I am sure that I am not the only person who would love to see something like this.

A lot of people that use today’s messaging platforms have never seen the glory days of instant messaging past. We still had bots in the early 00’s. We had voice and video as well. We had everything! What we did not have back then was secret backdoors. Or maybe they were pretty good secrets!

As phones and computers get more powerful and the Internet more advanced, it only makes sense to cut out the middleman.

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Life and Personal

Posterous

I have always been one to experiment with new ideas and technologies, and I am proud to say that, albeit late, I am now going to actively use Posterous. This blog has always served to be a bigger and more thorough outlet for my thoughts. The Posterous aspect of it would serve to expose my other side – the side that takes casual pictures, does casual business through emails, and is often on the move but doesn’t want to let the thought die.

I hope you enjoy the new – posterous.cerebrawl.com!