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Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and the Return of the Walled Gardens of E-Mail

"Email? I only use that when I have to contact old people!"
      - frequent quote these days from teenagers

When I started using "the Net" back in mid-1980s, the world of "e-mail" was an incredibly fractured place.  There were the big services of CompuServe, GEnie, The Source, The Well... there were the thousands of small BBS's... there were "corporate services" like MCI Mail and IBM PROFS... and there were all sorts of others services in the middle (my particular focus in those days was EcoNet, given my involvement then in environmental activism).  They all shared one thing in common:

They were all walled gardens.

Users on the system could only e-mail other users on the same system.  CompuServe users with their (then) numeric accounts could only talk to other CS users.  GEnie users to GEnie users, MCI Mail to MCI Mail... and so on.

But a funny thing happened along the garden path... the walls started to slowly break down.  UUCP started interconnecting UNIX systems.  FidoNet started linking together BBS systems.  X.400 came out and had corporate interest.  And then along came SMTP, which ultimately became the "one email protocol to rule them all" (paralleling the emergence of TCP/IP and the "Internet" as the dominant network in the midst of all the network walled gardens). 

While the fight against the interconnection continued for quite a long time, especially with some of the largest services continuing to try to go it alone, eventually all the services succumbed to the inevitable and provided SMTP gateways that allowed their members to send messages to everyone else. 

All was good - and everyone could send messages to everyone else.

However... a curious thing seems to be happening more and more on this thing we call the Internet.  Increasingly, our messages are NOT moving over what is traditionally known as "email" but instead are migrating to other services.

You could argue that this started some time ago with the walled gardens of instant messaging.  Users of AIM, Yahoo!Messenger, MSN/WLM, Jabber, Skype, IRC, etc. all can have really nice conversations with each other... but no one else.   As IM has continued to grow in usage and replace "traditional" email (which we could argue about why but I personally think it has a lot to do with "presence", but let's save that for another post another day), we've moved to a different messaging paradigm where we write shorter, quicker messages.  And we've also become quite comfortable with our IM walled gardens.  It's routine for people to run several different IM clients (or use something like GAIM that works with multiple services).  Looking down at my task bar, I count 4 IM clients, and I know there are 3 more on my laptop that I could be running.  Now, the walls of IM are slowly breaking down... there's "federation" now between MSN/WLM and Yahoo.  GoogleTalk can work with Jabber.  Other interconnection services are appearing.

But looking beyond IM, so many conversations now are moving to "social networking services".  The quote I started this article with did not come from any particular place, but it's the kind of thing that I've seen repeated again and again in any interview with teenagers (or even those in their 20s).  The service we know as "email" is today just a "communication mode of last resort" or "least common denominator" to communicate with those too old or clueless. All meaningful communication occurs within the worlds of MySpace, Facebook or any one of a zillion other websites that seem to be popping up on a daily basis. 

And all those sites are chasing each other.  Facebook started out as something of a "college/university version of MySpace"... now it's added "professional" settings like LinkedIn.  LinkedIn has gone the other way in adding "college" features to attract the college/university crowd.   Orkut started out as more of a dating site and then added other fields and settings. MySpace continues adding new features.  Not a day goes by when there isn't some notice about a new service that has been launched.

Even Twitter, which I personally use more as a micro-blogging platform, is used as a messaging platform by many.  And the "status" format of Twitter can be found in Facebook as well as newer services like Jaiku.

What do they all have in common?  Simple:

They are all walled gardens.

Each one is a messaging world unto itself.  Facebook users can only see messages from other Facebook users - and only generally when logged into the site.  Ditto LinkedIn.... Xing... MySpace... and others.  Twitter allows the public viewing of messages, but you can also change it to give only updates to friends.  (To "reply" in Twitter, of course, one would need to be a member... and also be "followed" by the person you are replying to.)  Sites like YouTube and Frappr blur the lines by providing messaging as well.

The result, of course, is that like running multiple IM clients, we all have multiple social networking accounts.

How many do you have?

For me, I can remember at least:  LinkedIn, Xing, Facebook, MySpace, Orkut, Twitter, ecademy...  There's probably a dozen others where I signed up to try it out and then forgot about it.  In each one, I can send and receive messages to and from the other members.  I can post updates and see messages from my "friends".

Interestingly, most all of these sites fall back on that "least common denominator" of good old e-mail to let me know that I have messages waiting for me.  I have to go back to those sites, of course, to read the messages.  Yes, some sites do updates via SMS and some let you subscribe via RSS, but generally you have to go back into the site.

The other intriguing difference is that within those sites, you can generally only see messages from the people you choose to see.  Within Facebook or Twitter, you only see updates from people who you have added as a friend.  Your friends or contacts can send you messages in many services, but others can't until they are your friend.

We've gone from the closed communities of email services to the complete openness of Internet e-mail and now seem to be returning back to those gated communities, with email/SMS helping keep us aware of updates.  Given the amount of spam plaguing email, this may in part a reaction and a desire for purer message flow.

So how do you communicate with others within this space?   Or stay up on what someone is doing?

It's not enough even to follow someone's blog anymore, because they may be posting more updates to their Twitter, Facebook or other account.

Given that email may not be the best way, how do you best reach someone?  Which IM service?  Which social networking site?  Which ones do they use?  Which ones do they monitor the most?

In which walled garden do they spend most of their time?