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Microblogging inside the Firewall

March 30th, 2010 No comments

Cross posted to Molecular Voices. Please comment there.

Little strings of text are big business – both publicly and inside the corporate firewall. As we all know, Twitter is pretty big – TV and radio ads for major companies mention their Twitter sites and even business cards reference Twitter URLs nowadays. But Twitter cannot be used with internal information, so there’s a lot of collaborative power waiting to be unleashed by microblogging inside the corporate firewall. Consider how much more productive everyday workers could be if they shared a few quick bits of knowledge.

For example, consider this timeline:

Alice: Client loved the sales pitch – we won! #sales
Brion: Vending machine has been re-stocked
Charles: #CSS reminds me of aspect oriented programming #aop
Darleen: Project is progressing according to schedule #project3
Evan: Fellow #project3 members: Is this front end policy useful for us? http://ur1.ca/shyu
Fred: @evan Possibly – let’s discuss this with @brion over lunch
Zach: @fred @evan we used those guidelines on #project5 and it worked out well
ITBot: Email server test failed. IT has been contacted.

These examples show that:

  • The barrier to entry is incredibly low (Alice posted immediately after a sales pitch, probably from a plane)
  • Useful business information is exchanged, as well as team-building (Brion provided non-business information about the vending machine that others will likely appreciate)
  • Because discussion is open to a broader audience than email, others participate in unexpected and beneficial ways (see how Zach, who isn’t even on project 3, helped the project 3 team)
  • Bots can publicize information gathered automatically. For example, IT could set up a bot to monitor servers and automatically publish status updates. Bots can also subscribe to RSS feeds bridging wiki and blogs with the microblogging world.

There are many other benefits once metadata is considered.

  • People choose who to follow. If Alice isn’t interested in the state of IT systems, she doesn’t subscribe to the ITBot.
  • Users can mark a message as a favorite. Messages that are favorited many times show up in a “favorites” list, which is a great source of useful information.
  • By clicking on a #project3, Brion can find all posts about his project, providing a powerful search option.
  • Messages may have optionally location data attached. Users can tell if the person they’re talking to is in the same office as they are, on vacation, working from home, at a client office, or at another branch of their company. This data allows users to make fast decisions about how to further communicate (phone, email, or walk).

At Molecular, we wanted to take advantage of what “firewalled” microblogging has to offer, so we evaluated a few private microblogging tools, looking for software that provides a familiar interface, allows customization of the look and feel, and has clients for different devices (like Twitter has). In the end, we chose StatusNet. (In the interest of full disclosure, I’m a contributing developer to the StatusNet project.)

StatusNet LogoThe StatusNet software (which also runs the ~200k user identi.ca site) is Free and Open Source so anyone can feel free to install, evaluate, and use it without worrying about contracts or licensing fees. However, StatusNet, Inc (the company that supports the StatusNet software) offers professional services if you chose to run the software on site, or hosting if you prefer it to be hosted elsewhere. If the “go it yourself” route is selected, installation is pretty straightforward as it runs on the popular LAMP stack and has a vibrant community willing to answer questions.

StatusNet can integrate with LDAP/Active Directory and even some Single Sign On solutions. No worrying about managing accounts as employees come and go, so private information stays private.

The software also supports a variety of clients on a number of platforms, from Windows, Mac, and Linux to iPhones and Androids.

After developing a custom skin, selecting which plugins to enable, and testing with a small group, we officially launched “IsoBuzz” to the entire organization last week. We’re already seeing some interesting conversations. Over time, we hope to see IsoBuzz became a powerful tool for knowledge sharing and collaboration, especially among distant offices and between departments.

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