Activity streams shouldn't wag the dog


The constant challenge for social software is to boil down the ongoing process of technology change happening around us into bite sized concepts that people can hang on to. Its the tyranny of reductionist thinking, because the moment we do that we often lose sight of what is actually happening.

To that point, one of the most contentious issues that falls into this trap is the idea of activity streams versus email. There are two reasons for this, I think:

Most arguments against activity streams can be traced back to these positions, often in combination.

However, there is a third perspective: social software, particularly in a work context, isn't just about activity streams and email isn't just about sending messages.

Without going too much over old ground, the protocols of email do have utility, such as universal addressing and (the perception, at least) of non-repudiation of stored emails. However, these shouldn't be confused with the email inbox that so many people spend so much time in.

There is no doubt we are in the middle of an uncomfortable period of change, where the email and social inboxes overlap. In the enterprise space, different vendors are taking different approaches to the problem. Some are creating their own task and notification orientated inboxes in parallel to email. Others are taking the route of embedding social tools into traditional email applications.

Other utilities of email are slowly being chipped away too:

But no one has hit the perfect pattern yet, and certainly if we don't build these on open standards we never will. It probably needs to be distributed too, so that everyone owns their own content and social graph even if its embedded in a page, an activity or a conversation thread.

Ironically, you can see that I've fallen into the same trap by focusing on email versus activity streams. The critical point is that if you are just working in email OR an activity stream, then you are probably doing something wrong.

Activity streams should link to social objects, human or machine. Remember, 'social' isn't short for conversation or water cooler talk; what I mean by social is that they are situated in a organisational or group context, which are ultimately made of people. All we are trying to do is humanise enterprise information systems and an activity stream is just one part of the solution for creating more open communication, ambient awareness and a way to tap into collective intelligence.

Or to put it simply, they are the tail on the dog and not the other way around.

Activity streams aren't going to replace email, but the inbox will change because we have better social software tools to collaborate and manage information in. The protocols and systems that support email as we have known it will fade further into the background.