Friday, December 3, 2010

How many ways can a person send a message these days?

Well, how many ways can a person send a message these days?
  • Talk to a person.
  • Join a group conversation
  • Write a letter to a person
  • Write a letter to the editor
  • Call a person on the phone
  • Call into a broadcast show
  • Participate in a conference call
  • SMS (text) on cell phone
  • Email
  • IM a person
  • Join an IRC or IM chat room
  • Update your status on your IM service
  • Send a message on a social networking site
  • Update your status on your social networking site
  • Tweet
  • Write a blog post
  • Comment on a blog post
  • Post a comment on a forum
  • Send a message in your virtual world or MMORPG
  • Produce a podcast
  • Participate in a webcast
  • Um, yikes, that's a lot, but it's not hard to come up with more.  Put a message in a bottle.  Update a bug report.  Post a sign.  Spray-paint your house.  Wear a message T-Shirt.  Put a bumper sticker on your car ...
I'm limiting (yes, limiting) myself here to things a typical individual might be expected to do, so writing a magazine article or holding a nationally televised press conference wouldn't count.  Even so, there's a seemingly limitless supply of ways to send a message.

When faced with such abundance, a plausible explanation is combinatorial explosion -- a reasonably small number of factors which can be combined in a large number of ways.  What are some possible factors?
  • Cardinality:  How many senders and how many receivers are there? The choices for each are one or more than one (denoted N) This is why I distinguished calling a person from joining a conference call or phoning into a show.
  • Symmetry: Are there specific roles, e.g., sender and receiver, or is everyone on an equal footing? 
  • Potential recipients:  Who could possibly receive the message, or perhaps better, what group do you need to belong to in order to be able to receive a message?
  • Potential senders: For the purposes of this exercise, this is generally "Anyone" (though in some cases it's narrower).
  • Access control: Who controls who can send or receive?
  • Persistence: Can the message be expected to be permanently available to the recipient?  This would be within the messaging system.  Once a message is received, the recipient can generally keep a private copy and/or resend it.
  • Latency: How much time typically passes between sending and receiving?  Latency can be higher or lower.  It can also be arbitrary, as in the case of forums and email.
  • Bandwidth: The maximum rate at which information can be transferred
  • Message size
  • Anonymity: Does the sender typically know who is receiving?  Does the receiver typically know who's sending? If so, can one easily make oneself anonymous?
So does that help sort anything out?  If it does, we should see a fairly wide variety of combinations, keeping in mind that some particular combinations may not make sense.  For example, 1:N cardinality implies asymmetry and persistence generally implies arbitrary latency.  Let's see what we've got (the table below is too wide for this layout, so I made it scrollable. Here's how)

MechanismCardinalitySymmetric?Potential receiversAccess controller(s)Persistent?BandwidthMessage sizeLatencyAnonymity
Talk to a person1:1YesAnyoneParticipantsNoHighArbitraryNegligibleNone
Group conversationN:NYesAnyoneParticipantsNoHighArbitraryNegligibleNone
Letter to person1:1NoAnyoneParticipantsYesLowSmallDaysPossible for sender
Letter to editor1:NNoSubscribersEditorYesLowSmallDaysPossible for sender
Call person1:1Yes, except at startAnyoneParticipantsNoMediumArbitraryGenerally negligible, enough to be annoying in some casesPossible for caller or receiver
Call show1:NNoListeners/viewersProducersTypicallyMediumGenerally limitedGenerally negligiblePossible for caller; audience is anonymous 
Conference callN:NDepends.  In some cases only some participants can talk.Depends.  Passcode may be requiredModeratorDependsMediumArbitraryGenerally negligiblePossible
SMS1:1NoService subscribersService providerYesLowSmallArbitraryTo the extent phone numbers can be anonymous
Email1:1 or 1:NNoAnyone with email (doesn't matter who provides the email service)No one, except that various providers may try to screen out spammersYesLow for typed text, can be high for large attached filesVaries, but generally at least megabytesArbitraryPossible
IM1:1Yes, except at startService participantsService providerOptionallyLow (again excepting file attachments)Low (again excepting file attachments)It's "instant" messaging, right?Possible
Chat roomN:NYes, except at startService participantsService provider (for access to service), moderator, in some cases (for access to room)OptionallyAs with IMAs with IMAs with IMPossible
IM Status update1:NNoService participantsService providerMay or may not be archived; persists until changedLowSmallArbitraryNone
Social network message1:1 or 1:NNoService participantsParticipants, service providerYesLowGenerally smallArbitraryNone
Social network status update1:NNoService participantsService providerAs with IM statusLowSmallArbitraryDefault state for readers
Tweet1:NNoAnyone with a web connection or cell phoneService provider (Twitter)YesLowSmallArbitraryPossible for sender, default state for readers
Blog post1:NNoAnyone with a web connectionBlog authorYesLowSmallishArbitraryPossible for author, default state for readers
Blog comment1:NNoAnyone with a web connectionBlog authorYesLowSmallishArbitraryPossible for author of comment
Forum comment1:NNoAnyone with a web connectionModeratorYesLowSmallishArbitraryPossible for author
Virtual world/MMORPG message1:NNoService participantsService providerNoLowSmallGenerally negligiblePlayers go by pseudonyms
Podcast1:NNoAnyone with a web connectionCreatorYesMediumLargishArbitraryPossible for creator, default state for audience
Webcast1:N or N:NDepends, as with conference callAnyone with a web connectionModeratorPossiblyLowLowGenerally negligiblePossible

One could argue over particular entries, some of the terms could be better defined, and I could add other factors, for example privacy, but it's pretty clear that combinatorial explosion is exactly what's going on.  There are a zillion different ways of sending messages because there are a zillion possible combinations of features one might like.

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