Interoperable Online Human Relationships

Email, short form videos, infographics illustrate the role of interoperability in the future of online human relationships

There is a subtle but important connection that links three apparently different digital phenomena: The email newsletter, which has re-emerged recently as an important, fundamental communications method after we thought social media would dominate; the surprising popularity of short-form video across different platforms; and the ability of infographics to capture our attention as we look at the details of the phenomena they analyze and represent. The link that connects these three is interoperability, or lack thereof, and human effort in creating genuine connections.

Social media promised unfettered access to our networks, whether professional or personal. We eagerly connected relationships – friends, relatives, families – on the various platforms. And as new platforms were born, we adopted them to experiment and understand their similarities and differences relative to earlier ones.

There are dominant social networks today, but they invariably expose us to their downsides – whether algorithmic exploitation or the fact that as our networks grow large, the feed of updates that each platform represents cannot humanly transfer all the information, and necessarily has to be filtered based on criteria not completely transparent.

Dissatisfaction with this inability to fully gain and maintain user trust leads to new platforms emerging as we experiment, while also naturally maintaining the old ones as we evaluate the new. As a consequence, we cross-post what we want to share from one platform to the next.

It would be ideal to maintain our identities and ensure information is available at the highest granularity across platforms. For example, if I include a URL to a website in my post, I expect that URL to be clickable, and if possible, visible and clickable when I embed or point to the post from another platform. This does not happen at all now. And other things one would intuitively expect and find valuable are impossible on today’s platforms.

Here’s another example: I am “@davidorban” on most platforms. But if you post and tag me, that post embedded on another platform will lose the ability to actively link to my profile there. Let alone if my account name differs across platforms for whatever reason – our identities become fragmented, and interoperability of content across platforms is lost.

Email emerged because the SMTP protocol underlying it is interoperable, universally accepted by servers and clients. It works reliably, hasn’t been made proprietary, and when I write an email, the subject, body, etc. will faithfully reach your inbox.

Nothing’s perfect – emails might end up in spam. And you decide whether to read. However, when you subscribe to my newsletter, the email address stays mine. Even if I change providers from MailChimp to Substack, the subscriber list I own moves with me.

Short-form videos have become successful primarily because of TikTok. Other platforms – Instagram, YouTube, Facebook – have copied the ability to post vertical videos around a minute long. Even as TikTok paradoxically pushes 15-minute videos to mess with creators and competitors.

If you record a sub-60-second vertical video, you can post to multiple platforms largely unchanged. I recently started doing this – you can find me on TikTok, YouTube, Instagram, etc. I even ran a survey asking if LinkedIn followers wanted my videos there. Yes, so for now I’m posting across platforms.

The interoperability is imperfect – I can’t tag anyone effectively. The reason these videos work, beyond platforms chasing the TikTok trend, relates to infographics.

I used to hate infographics. They often illustrate data in cumbersome ways, subtracting rather than adding value. The silly pictures – column charts as hamburgers is a favorite bad example – hide information rather than visualizing it best. Most infographics are non-interactive JPEGs that kill information by flattening it.

But their success relates partly to the human effort involved in creating them. It’s hard to automate quality infographic design. When you see one, you must invest a little effort to decode – what’s real information versus decorative fluff? But you can rely on serious human effort going into the infographic creation.

So the test, as AI generates both video and infographics, will be how we judge and value them compared to human creations. Will we treasure AI productions as much? Or learn to discount them as background noise to better focus on human relationships? We’ll see – I’ll be exploring and experimenting to understand the evolving context of these tools.