Office Messaging and URL Shortening

Category: Internet

Published: 04/13/2011 03:48 p.m.

I wrote up an idea a while ago about a 250-character inter-office messaging system. I was frustrated (and still am) with the varying use of e-mail as an all-in-one messaging system. E-mails can include:

  • pertinent information
  • knowledge sharing
  • private information
  • conversations (lots of e-mails)
  • detailed discussions
  • file transfer
  • To Do items
  • FYI type information
The first problem I have with using e-mail to communicate all of those things is that e-mail is a poor storage platform. Information should not be stored in e-mail. It can work as a suitable backup, but there are many other options for data storage that offer more backup, more permanence, and more ease of access. Any information that is sent via e-mail that needs to be retrieved in the future (files, login information, action items) should be stored in a separate place. By storing outside of e-mail, you have much better access controls for that data. If a password only lives in my inbox, then my co-workers cannot easily access it. Data should live outside of messaging, and messaging should link to this outside data.

My second concern with e-mail is that most of these information types have different contexts, different levels of importance, and different needs from me as the reader. My phone or desktop program can notify me every time I receive a message. I get the same notification if the message is an FYI, or if it is a "somethings-on-fire" message that needs immediate attention. This problem is not easily solved because the sender may think their message is of the utmost importance and the receiver may disagree.

Twitter is an example of a specialized messaging system. I receive no notifications for FYI messages (the tweets of those I follow), but I am alerted when one of these messages specifically references me. This is still very basic, but it works well as messages including me (@replies) generally need more of my attention. Sometimes this is done with a cc:@jmoswalt in a tweet, which I think is a good practice.[^1]

But Twitter doesn't solve every problem, and Twitter cannot be downloaded and used inside a single office. Yammer comes closer as it has private networks. Yammer even allows for private groups, so a specialized team can create messages only for their team. This is powerful because of both the exclusivity as well as the ability to message a group without having to address each individual.

So, we have some tools that address specialized notification and group notification and privacy, but what about sending over all of the data? This is where the URL shortening comes into play. Image a tool where you can compose e-mail like messages. You have Title, Body, and To: fields. You can include links to other things, files, pertinent data, or other types of information.

When the message is sent, the receivers see the message in their stream, which includes the Title and then a shortened link that points to a piece of content which houses the body portion of the message. This content piece is tied into the permission system of the message, so only the message recipients can access the content. This can be overridden by either the sender or any of the recipients. Public messages (those sent to the entire office) are not addressed to anyone in particular. Replies to any message could be threaded in the display, allowing people to track conversations.

So, is e-mail fixed now?

Does this solve the total problem of e-mail? No, but I think it is a huge improvement. There would need to be some small tweaks to make it more usable, but I think those would become apparent quickly and could be added in. For example, If I just want to send out a link to something, the messaging system shouldn't shorten the body content if all it contains is a link. The link should just appear in place of the shortened link. Photos and video could appear inline like a Tumblr blog. An office could establish some common short code for things like needs response (#nr), for your information (#fyi), Yes or No (#yn), etc.

The system becomes less abouttransferringdata and more about messaging. Problems with the level of importance would still exist. Titles to messages would become much more important, so you would need to train employees to send messages like "New Twitter interface released, looks like iPad app <link>" instead of "Wow, I can't believe how different this looks <link>". The second one is great for getting clicks, but very poor at summarizing the content of the link.

You may think that this creates more clicks. I now have to open a message and then open the content. While I can see the logic there, I think apps could be built so that messages come in a stream and are never really opened. They can arrive more like RSS, where they are marked read or unread, and can be starred and in our case replied-to. The other benefit is that many times a message may not need an immediate click. If this doesn't need a response or need my attention right now, I can save it for later. Based on the message title if I decide I don't need to read the attached content, so I save time and save a click.

This idea still needs some fine tuning, but I think it could really be a welcome change in inter-office communication.

[^1]: I like the cc rather than the naked @reply, because it gives more context.