Over the last few years, like many Internet users, my day-to-day online life has coalesced around three methods of interacting with the world. I’ve developed three “dashboards,” if you will, that each work within a different activity context. Throughout the day, I am constantly shifting from one dashboard to the other. They are separate in important ways, but at the same time, they all work together.
This system hasn’t developed because of any special planning on my part. It’s just how things have shaken out. But, looking at other people’s online activity, I know it is common and it has important implications for people who make decisions about their own organization’s online presence.
My three dashboards are: 1) My email reader; 2) My social media stream; and 3) My RSS reader.
Email. This is the dashboard that has the most power, because it is the most intrusive and demands the most. Email is where I receive messages from other people that I need to act upon, or respond to. It is where messages specifically for me appear. It’s almost a “to-do” list.
Social Media Stream. I am active on Facebook and Twitter, under multiple accounts. I collect all these accounts into one place (I use Seesmic) and so I see all of the status updates of all my “friends” in one long stream. What do I use this dashboard for? To keep up on what people are up to and what they feel is important to share. This is an important source of unexpected information, as well as an important way to maintain loose connections.
RSS Reader. Time was when I would surf around the Web, to a handful of favored sites, mostly newspapers and news aggregators. The advent of RSS (which stand for Really Simple Syndication) changed all that. Now I am able to grab the content of all of those sites and have each item appear like a message, as part of a stream. I use my RSS reader (I use Google Reader) to keep up on “news,” and also to keep up on friends’ blogs, possible new business postings, and to monitor my various brands (by setting up Google alerts for various search terms).
I ordered the above dashboards in descending order of . . . well, I guess “intimacy” is the word. Send me an email and if I know you I am for sure going to read it. (Although I have strong spam filters and a fast delete trigger if it looks like something unimportant.) I care about my social media stream but the connections are looser. There is no obligation to read every last thing everyone posts, but if I don’t keep up I feel like I am out of touch with the folks who matter to me. Finally, the RSS reader is like my newspaper. If I miss it for a few days it is not the end of the world and when I come back I can mark everything new as “read” without feeling like I am necessarily dissing someone.
The Line Between the Inbox and the Stream
I have written before about how much of our online lives has shifted from being driven by an Inbox to being driven by the Stream. Note that the social media and RSS dashboards are both Streams — which means that not everything necessarily gets read and acted upon. The Inbox, on the other hand, carries with it the assumption that everything in it must get processed in some way.
One consequence of this is that I am trying hard to make sure that only must-process things appear in my Inbox, by shifting subscriptions (for instance) to RSS or deleting them entirely and relying on the fact that interesting items will naturally surface in my social stream.
Lessons for Leaders
My own choices about what is important — what belongs on which dashboard — are not the same as yours. So your organization needs to make sure it is easy for your content to be ported into all three dashboard types. You need an “email” button, a “share” button, and an “rss subscribe” button.
In fact, this article was spurred by a conversation with someone about their desire to add a “subscribe by email” button to their blog. Me, I don’t want to use my Inbox dashboard that way. Others, though, have a few things that they want to make sure they see and so they want them delivered to their email. So it is imporant to make sure you are covered.
Another lesson is that sharing is important. If your content cannot appear in one of these dashboard types (or all three), it can easily become less relevant. A good example is the Drudge Report. Back in 1998, when Matt Drudge broke the Monica Lewinsky scandal, people “surfed” for their news. They would go to websites that had news in order to get it. With the adventage of RSS, this is less common, yet (I believe for ad revenue reasons) the Drudge Report stubbornly refuses to implement and way to view content other than on the site. While it is by no means irrelevant, it has been eclipsed by a range of other, dashboard-friendly sites.
A third lesson is that people don’t want more dashboards. Many organizations, especially those with deep content, get the urge to create their own dashboard of sorts (remember the fad of everything being “my” this or “my” that?). That might have worked well two years ago, but now people have pretty much settled on their dashboards of choice, ignoring other offerings. Think again of the Drudge Report. It is actually a news dashboard, with pointers to other news articles. I now get the very same thing on my RSS reader, without having to go to the Drudge site. (For an important caveat to this lesson, see below.)
Writing this, I can think of one blog that I religiously make sure hits my Inbox (not a Stream): Seth Godin’s blog. I see it every morning because I subscribed by email, and each time I think to switch reading methods, I hesitate. I don’t want to miss it — it is a “must-process” for me.
This illustrates one important thing to keep in mind about the three dashboards. Even for one user, the lines between the dashboards can blur. Try as I might to have some rigor about what goes into where, there is overlap. For instance, in addition to the Seth Godin example, there are elements of my social stream that make it into my Inbox, and I am loathe to change this. I still get Facebook notifications emailed to me — and each time I think about turning them off (because I check my social dashboard frequently enough that I shouldn’t need them in the Inbox) I stop myself. I want to make sure I see these interactions, so the dividing line gets blurred.
And one more limitation, or caveat, to this new dashboard regime. When I say that people don’t want “new” dashboards, I don’t mean that there is no room for innovation. Twitter, for instance, has become a key dashboard for many, many people and it did not exist a few years ago. Even though I myself lump it into a more generalized social stream, some people use it singularly as its own dashboard with attached ecosystem. So, if you are considering building a brand new dashboard, don’t be totally discouraged, just make sure it’s compelling!
Looking Forward: New Dashboards
No one knows what other information sources will rise to the level of being a dashboard. Seven years ago no one would have thought the social stream would be as important as it is. So I am hesitant to make any predictions.
However, I will make one. I think that location will develop into a dashboard. It will coexist with the social stream, but it will also be a separate dashboard — where (physically) are the people I care about? Where am I? Where do I like to go? Where do they go? This location-dashboard will be integrated tightly to mobile devices like smartphones (iPhone, Android, Palm) and slate computers (iPad).
This is an emerging space (e.g., Foursquare) and it may fizzle, but I do not believe it will.