Hard to believe that only 10 or 15 years ago we interacted with coworkers and colleagues with memos and phone calls. Email and instant messaging changed all that. Now there's a new communications revolution coming. These services mix contacts, instant messaging, blogging, and texting, and they're poised to make email feel as antiquated as the mimeograph.
The best known of the new services is Twitter. Since its debut last spring, it has been one of the fastest-growing apps in the history of the Internet. The best way to describe it is as a microblog service in which you tell people what you're doing or thinking at any given moment. The hook is that you're limited to 140 characters. "It's strangely addictive," says NBC videographer Jim Long. "Evidently, people are interested in what I'm doing, and I genuinely care about what they're doing."
Twitter's basic idea has proven so popular that others have copied its premise and added features. Jaiku lets me include blog posts, my link blog, and more along with my mini posts. Pownce users can send files to one another, as well as calendar events. At Facebook, I can add such information as my favorite music and the syndicated Web feeds I've shared in Google Reader.
All this adds up to a new way to share information about yourself. Although the content of the messages can vary wildly from voyeuristically interesting to terribly dull, a frequent stream of updates can strengthen your brand. My 4,000-plus Twitter "followers" can get my blasts online or via text message, and each one is also its own Web page, which means that Google can see it and let people search for it. When you're traveling frequently and working from coffeehouses or the backseat of a cab, these services are great to keep in touch with coworkers back at the office and with customers nearby. "I post where I travel and arrange user meetups," says Betsy Weber, an evangelist with software firm TechSmith.
The professional intimacy these services create—hey, if you know someone's whereabouts and musical tastes, you're halfway home—can also win you clients. "People won't do business with you until they like you or have a sense of trust," says Cathryn Hrudicka, a consultant who uses Facebook, Jaiku, and Twitter. She has already gotten referrals from people she has met online because she has shown she'll be available when clients need her.
Sales and marketing are lagging in seeing the potential here. When I used all these services to tell the world that my wife and I were expecting a child in September, I anticipated hearing from the world's largest consumer-products companies begging me to try their latest diapers, food, car seats, and financial instruments. What came back? Nothing. Where was Procter & Gamble? Given what it and other companies spend acquiring new customers, there's an untapped gold mine in Twitter and Facebook because we're volunteering so much information about what we're doing right now, whether it's working on a project or eating a chicken-salad sandwich. Learning how to tap it correctly—both to sell to me directly and in seeing major trends in the millions of daily public posts—will be the next major challenge for these companies.
If we revisit this conversation again in three years, I suspect that we'll have found all sorts of little uses for these services, and they'll simply become what email is today: something we must do just to participate in the heartbeat of business.
Robert Scoble is an influential video podcast pioneer and blogger following the tech industry. Watch him at Podtech.net and read him at Scobleizer.com. For a video podcast of this column and daily "Best of the Tech Web," go to fastcompany.com/scoble.