So I was reading an article on Pyramid recently, and the attendant discussion on the Pyramid discussion boards, which got me thinking. I often don't realize how much the internet has evolved in my lifetime, or how immersed I've been in that change. True, I'm no Great Old One who had the honor of dealing with punch-cards or actual terminals. But if those venerable souls were the ones who wrought the net from the unliving stone, then I am of the first progeny that genesis has spawned. Not even an early-adopter, for that would presume something to be adopted, but rather an embodiment of the time from which sprang the devices for adoption.
Looking back over the net, even just over my megre life, I have seen the invention and death of countless technologies. Technologies which have at their core the one simple truth about the internet. The net, as with the whole of human endeavor is concerned solely with the production and consumption of meaning, with the conveyance of thought and information.
To that end we have invented countless ways to communicate that meaning, from the very fundament of language itself, to books and radio and television, to bulletin boards, email, usenet, IRC, webpages, instant messaging, weblogs, newsfeeds, podcasts, voice-over-IP, wikis, and countless others. And over time we've seen the revival of a number of these forgotten souls in the new era from bulletin boards like Craigslist, to the reinvention of terminals with lessdisks, to the purported renaissance of IRC.
And yet, when e'er these ideas return they are thought of as novel and all too often they fear to look at their predecessors to learn from the faults of times past. An interesting thing is that the difficulties with each of these technologies are remarkable in their similarity despite their disparate implementations. The problem of spam originated on usenet if not before. And since then it has spread to email, IM, and even wikis. And so it is with the myriad of other difficulties.
Upon reflection, one thing which I find is lacking, is a unified system which categorizes these different technologies, a single language with which to discuss and compare them. A language which could be almost deceptive in its simplicity. There are a small number of axes on which these forms of communication can be rated.
One such axis is the relation between source(s) and audience(s). The most obvious points on this axis are one-to-one, one-to-many, and many-to-many which can be seen in (basic) email and IM, weblogs and websites, and usenet and IRC respectively. Most technologies can be tasked to more than one of these — for example, email can serve as one-to-many (newsletters) or even many-to-many (listservs) — but they tend to naturally fall into one of those for the majority of use. Once can also distinguish between subtly different forms of communication like directly mailing a group of people (one-to-many), vs using a listserv where the source will mail the server (one-to-one) and then the server will bounce the message back to the list (one-to-many).
We could consider extending that axis. For example, with the advent of MMORPGs one could see the need to discuss one-to-mm, many-to-mm, or even mm-to-mm. However, this step may be a bit premature. While it's true that these systems have massively many users, rarely if ever do that many users enter into communication at once, but rather this MM environment tends to fracture into many one-to-many and one-to-one exchanges; a behavior often seen even in face-to-face interactions with large groups of people, an interesting parallelism at the very least. Even though discussing MM many not be entirely appropriate, it is still worth considering for what implications it may pose.
Another possible extension would be to think of zero users. A zero-to-one communication could be something like /dev/random, or a one-to-zero communication like /dev/null. Although getting into this discussion quickly lands one in some very complicated positions that have no easy resolution. Another possible extension would be to actually break this axis in twain, one for the quantity of sources, one for the quantity of audiences. At this stage of description, however, that would add complication without adding much descriptive force as many-to-one and other such combinations are particularly rare.
So let's move on to the second axis of description: Latency or, if you prefer, Spontaneity. One of the characteristic differences between, say, email and IM is the average or expected turn-around for a reply. IM, like IRC, the phone, etc have a very high spontaneity, almost instantaneous. Webpages on the other hand have an incredibly low spontaneity, practically zero effectively making them one-way communication. And in between we have varying degrees for wikis, blogs, emails, etc.
A third axis of internet communication, and one we should be careful not to confuse with the second axis, is Immersion; that is, the degree or depth of communication. For example, emails and blogs on the whole are limited to plain text to communicate their meaning. On the other hand we have things like VoIP and podcasts which, using the human voice rather than text, can communicate more meaning. And on the third hand we have things like video teleconferencing which add visual cues in addition to the subtle intonations of voice. There's an upper limit on this axis, though one which may or may not be reachable, namely total immersion, perfect rapport, telepathy or some digital emulation thereof.
It is important to distinguish immersion from spontaneity. While more spontaneous forms of contact tend to be more immersive (or conversely, more immersive ones tend to be more spontaneous), that is not always the case. For example, IRC is more spontaneous than email, but in email one has the option of using HTML or adding images. Similarly, VoIP and video conferencing have the same level of spontaneity but are distinguished by their levels of immersion.
The numerous issues with internet communication — privacy, authenticity, spam,... — are also quite similar with differences only in how one goes about dealing with them. But that is perhaps a discussion for another time.