TR: What you just described blurs the line separating Web services from social software.DORNFEST: Absolutely. It’s a very fuzzy line between “here’s everything you know about a product,” and “here’s everything you know about a person or a community.”
TR: Another thrust at E-Tech is mobile devices. Is there a common thread between social software and what’s going on in wireless?
DORNFEST: Moving from desktop to laptop and unwired laptop changed the place you park yourself but didn’t really change all that much about how you network. Think about it: I’m doing e-mail here versus doing e-mail there. I’m using the same tools. I’ve just picked up the wire and broken it. What I’m seeing that is fundamentally changing things, though, is the cellular stuff. When you go around the United States, you talk about mobility and you’re mostly talking about laptops and WiFi. The rest of the world is talking mostly about cellular.
TR: Having Meetup.com on your cell phone means that you’re never wanting for something to do.
DORNFEST: Absolutely. Or you’ve got conversations in your pocket, through IRC [Internet Relay Chat]. I can take my IRC friends with me, and not just talk to them when I’m sitting in the caf. I can be wandering around a store and say to myself, What was that thing I saw on the Internet? And I can ask my IRC friends right then and talk to them about the thing in the store. It’s a way of bringing the online life out into the world. There are things to figure out as you bring more of the online life off-line: How to know who to trust? How to know who it’s important for you to meet up with? How do you know where they are? Social software is going to play a large part in mediating some of those interactions.
TR: How well does today’s social software do that?
DORNFEST: I think there’s a long way to go, but I’m excited about it. The social software we play with everyday allows you to introduce me to a friend because you think we might have something in common. The interaction goes like this, basically: “Someone says you are their friend: Is that true? Yes or no?” The pressure is on! Do I say yes or no? So-and-so says you would take a bullet for them, or that you don’t care about them at all. It feels that extreme. If I had known that it was that easy to make friends I would have written Orkut. It’s a very primitive attempt at recreating the subtlety of real world interaction but it’s good that we’re trying these things.
TR: It seems as if for social software and mobile devices to advance, there will also have to be developments in business models, new services, and new interfaces. It’s as if they all have to move forward together.
DORNFEST: Yeah, that’s the supporting cast. Look, for example, at this SPOT watch [a wristwatch introduced by Microsoft in January]. Microsoft made a fundamental design decision that it would be read-only. You wouldn’t be able to send messages. You wouldn’t be able to respond. That changes fundamentally how you interact with it.
TR: Isn’t that rather limiting?
DORNFEST: Actually, that makes the device far more useful, in that I don’t have to do anything. It’s a notification service. And that’s what I wanted for my wrist. I wasn’t going to write on my wrist. So the interface has to change for the purposes of the device. And the service has to change.
Another example is cell phones. Look at WAP [Wireless Access Protocol], an open standard for handling Internet content on mobile phones. This was the first attempt to enable you to access the Web from small-screen devices. And it worked-sort of. Then phone makers managed to make the devices slightly bigger and put in a regular Web browser, experimenting with interfaces. Now, I love Sony and Ericsson because they’re managing to keep their phones simple. By contrast, using a Nokia phone feels very much like Windows 3.1: there are icons all over the place and you’re navigating without necessarily knowing what’s going on. The phone makers are experimenting. They have to because the data being thrown at these beasts has completely changed over the last few years.
TR: If the communities of innovators are geographically distributed, there’s no one place to look for the next big thing.
DORNFEST: It’s the “small pieces, loosely joined” idea, to use Dave Weinberger’s phrase. Yes, Microsoft can zoom in, but other people can still do pretty well. You can whip up an Orkut pretty quickly. But you should go and see what kind of stuff Microsoft is interested in with social software, and learn from that.
Innovation is all over the place. That’s what gets me most excited, seeing this stuff we’ve been talking about show up all over the place. It’s coming from all corners. It’s coming from the citizen engineers. It’s coming from the research labs. It’s coming from the logical progression of things. And it’s coming from those brilliant people who are either burnt out, or are out of jobs, or who are rebuilding after the bubble burst. There’s no one place to look for it.