When I first introduce people to weblogging and give them advice on how to start, I usually tell them to just pretend they're writing an email to a bunch of friends. That's what I do when I get stuck in a rut as well - I just start by thinking about what I would write if I were just emailing some pals about something interesting, then I just put it in my weblog instead. Beyond just as a trick to getting a weblog written, I think this actually captures the essence of the medium itself. Weblogging is mostly about communicating with people first and encapsulating the data second. It's a form of information that I'm now dubbing "communicontent" - something sitting directly between direct communication, and static informational content.
Let me explain why I think this is an important observation.
Capturing the Essence
Mobile phones are first and foremost devices for communicating, right? This may be obvious for most people, but having had a smart phone with me pretty much 24/7 for the past couple of years, that basic principle has been blurred quite a bit in my mind. Once I had my epiphany that mobile phones could do sooo much more than just make calls, I've been pushing them to do everything they could - from the web to SSH to IM to mobile video. Believe it or not, I can forget that the core functionality of a mobile phone is simply communication. Despite the fact that the mobile web is now much more compelling than it used to be, the number one mobile data service is *still* SMS text messaging. That's because text messaging fits into what the phone has always been meant to do.
On the flip side of this, personal computers, I would argue, have had communication tacked on to them - email, IM, etc. - and that's why they suck at those things. Yes, email was the first killer app of the Internet before the web, but face it, email sucks horribly. It's limited, unreliable and generally needs to be replaced. Instant messaging is segmented and even the newer VoIP revolution is still marred by lack of real standards. Communicating using a computer - though it may seem essential at times - is still pretty damn crufty. Ask anyone trying to wade through Spam, deal with constant IM interruptions or understand digitized voice over IP when the bandwidth drops a bit and they'll agree.
The Web, however, is thriving isn't it? There are billions of pages out there and multiple billion dollar businesses have been built on its back. But is the web a form of communication? Not really. The web is all about *content* and therefore fits naturally onto a platform for creating and consuming content that was created at least a dozen years before the Web was even invented. The web is completely serial: Give me a page. Stop. Give me another page. Stop. Obviously all that content communicates something to someone, but it's not like picking up the phone and chatting with someone, is it? The web is mostly about content, and that's why the PC is so good at viewing it. Back in 1984 you weren't creating web pages on your Mac, you were creating "docs". Fast forward 20 years and little has changed when it comes to the personal computer and how it handles this sort of data.
Along comes Convergence
That said, the fact is that technologies are rapidly converging. People are making voice calls from their computers and others are accessing the web and email daily on their phones. But despite this fact, applications ported directly from one platform to the other have had incredibly limited success. Why? Because of the inherent nature of each platform and of people's perceptions of the platform as well. Talk to any VoIP guy and I'm sure they'll give you an ear full of stories when they were first starting out about how people would never use their computer to make phone calls. I can give you just as many stories from people who say they'll never need a phone for anything besides voice. But as convergence starts to take hold, these misperceptions are going go away.
The first attempt at combining the two worlds of communication and content has been an abject failure. Ever heard of the phrase "communitainment?" Lycos even owns the domain name. This was MMS. Combining the strengths of SMS and media, people were supposed to flock to services that charged $1 or more per message to send you a comic-strip via MMS and other crap like that. The same content that people got for free on the web was thought to be the next sort of cash-cow that SMS is to the telecoms now. The content they were pitching is the type that's created by the few, to be consumed by the many. Music, Video, Mass Media, etc. The only "communication" part of the process was the idea that this stuff would be sent to you via MMS so you wouldn't have to poll the web or anything. It sounds good but it's obviously not catching hold. I would say it's because MMS ignores the basic nature of the mobile phone - two-way communication, not just a platform for one-way consumption. (That and it's a technical nightmare as well - there's only so much value you can jam into 100k file size limitations.)
Now this brings me to my subject (whew). I think that there *will* be a killer app for the mobile phone, but one that works with its underlying essence of communication. And this is where communicontent comes in.
Communicontent to me, is a byproduct of communication where traditional content is magically created. As a corollary, the forms of communication that can best be expressed as content almost naturally become communicontent. See this weblog? This is communicontent. I used to drive my friends on mailing lists crazy by writing all these long, in-depth emails. Now I just write all the same thoughts in my weblog instead. The only difference is that the viewers aren't restricted. I'm still just communicating my personal thoughts. It's communication, but because it's been captured in a fixed state to be found later, it's also content.
This is more than just the famous "user generated content." If I take a picture (content I've generated) it doesn't really matter until I decide I want to send that picture to someone. Then it becomes something different. The act of communicating that piece of content makes it more special. In practical terms, it simply adds more meta-data at the very minimum: a title, a description, a place, etc. But it also gives it an inherent value as well: I think this is important enough to send, therefore you may want to think it's important enough to take time to look at.
Meta-data seems to be very important here - or rather, the automated or effortless addition of meta-data. Emails get titles, pictures get captions, weblog posts get permalinks, documents get names and are placed in folders, etc. When it comes to the web, services like Del.icio.us and Flikr are showing us the value of "tags" which are super-simple flat-hierarchy meta-data which doesn't take massive effort on the part of the user. Even the famous "Social Networking" systems out there are really just a way of adding additional meta-data to the content of someone's profile without overtly having to: This person is important because I know him, or know someone else who does.
How is communicontent created?
I think it's important to point out that I'm *not inventing anything* more than a term here. Many of these ideas have been floating around out there. What I'm trying to do is simply organize it in my mind to give me a basis from which to build other ideas on. Here's why: MMS is a contrived service and a failure. A committee sat around and thought "What can we make a phone do? Let's create a service that makes something of all that stuff." It's sort of like trying to make cookies by throwing a bunch of flower, sugar, butter, water and chocolate in a bowl without measuring and then just mixing it all together. It doesn't work. You need to understand what works well together first and why, before you can start getting creative. We're seeing a lot of contrived services right now in the mobile space. I just saw this new service called FoneShare from NewBay, the FoneBlog guys. They've sort of slapped a bunch of different types of apps together - social networking and file sharing - into some sort of new mobile service. I'm not trying to be a dick, don't see it having much success because it's such a contrived service.
Moblogs, surprised a lot of people because of their success. Aren't they just another form of a photo album? No, because when I post a photo, it gains a level of importance (and meta-data) that doesn't happen in a normal online shared photo album. Also, moblogs weren't contrived - sharing your personal content is a natural thing to want to do, especially photos. The words "personal content" is the key here - that sort of data is the most valuable data. Sending an MP3 to a friend isn't nearly as memorable as sending a photo to a friend - a unique piece of data that was created by you and you alone. That's why these services that talk about sharing music or wallpaper or whatever are completely off base. People just don't have a natural incentive to do this sort of thing.
Let's look at this from the communication side of things. You could consider raw Instant Message or chat logs as a form of content, but it the format doesn't really help someone coming later who has to try to work through all that information. Imagine if you called someone and were only allowed to speak one sentence at a time. That's what most IM messages are like - some sort of serial CB-like give and take between people. You have to cull that data for the good stuff. That's what we do over at Mobitopia.com right now, we have a bot that sits and listens only for links and comments about that link, which it then posts to an RSS feed, which I display on my website. Suddenly, we've created content out a of a medium meant only for communication.
In order to create communicontent, pure content needs meta-data, and pure communication needs organization.
One of Amazon.com's most useful features is the reviews. These are consumers communicating with other consumers about a product. But the fact that it's there, tied to a product, available for others to see at a later date means that it's more than just simple communication, it becomes searchable content. Wikis are another form of this type of content. Though some pages are just content edited by a variety of people, other pages are sort of like dynamic forums. Bulletin boards, forums and newsgroups are great communicontent examples as well if there's some sort of archive to be found later. One could argue that Google's GMail is trying to do the same with your email system. Before email was just communication, now GMail is trying to organize and present it in such a way as to become content. Right now, the GMail service is limited to just you but I would expect Google to start looking at ways to share your emails with others online in the same sort of way that people share photos now. In fact, this is what the new Jot wiki service enables. Any email can become the basis or the content of a Wiki page, which can then be edited later, and responded to like a forum. Though both GMail and Jot are not "public" like a moblog is, the basic tenet stays: taking forms of communication and archiving them in a way to derive value from their content. Communicontent.
So what's the big brainstorm for mobile phones? I don't know yet. But I think that I now have a lens in which to look at new services and ideas. There will always be a demand and need for "pure content" like ringtones, wallpapers, music, news and even streaming video. But when it comes to new data services, I think that because the essence of the phone is for communication, then the most natural fit for these services will be some sort of communicontent. This will allow users to both consume information on their mobiles and produce it as well, but in a more natural, non-contrived way. Will all new mobile services be communicontent? No, I don't think so - there's stuff out there we can't even fathom yet. But I'm looking at what *I* can produce coming from a web background which will make sense on a mobile and I think it has something to do with communicontent.
Whew. That took a few days to get out. If you made it to this sentence, thanks! I'd love to hear your thoughts about this below.