Nerdvana: A Better Tool For Communication (I Can Dream, Can’t I?)

[originally posted on Get Real]

I have used literally thousands of communications tools over the past 20 years, and although there has been an increase in commmunication speed and media, we have yet to see the “nerdvana” of tools that I have dreamed about for so long.

I have long championed other media as inherently being better than email, such as instant messaging, so, as you can imagine, the tool I am dreaming out incorporates the basic metaphor of IM: the buddy list. But it goes beyond IM, as I will show you.

How can I so baldly state that other media are better than email, in such an absolute way? Simple. Email is designed as a lowest-common denominator communications system, where everyone is treated equally. All emails, more or less, are the same (leaving aside issues of rich text v HTML and so on, which is not the thrust of my argument), which is stupid. The reality is that my relationships with people – whether I know them or not, how well I know them, and how involved we are at any given time in regular communication – is foremost in my mind when involved in communications, and as a result, the various artifacts of communication should be treated differently based on the context for their existence.

Basically, email is pretty good at communicating with people when you don’t know them well, or people you don’t know at all. All you need is their email address and your emails will be treated pretty much like anybody else’s. But as a result, email doesn’t really do very much to help with the highest valued communication: communicating with the known. That’s where the paradigm of buddies, and the gated communities of instant messaging networks excel.

But even technologies that I think are more useful in remaining in close contact with your circles of friends and colleagues don’t necessarily work together very well, if at all. So I am forced to read and write emails in one tool (yes, I do email, despite my dislike for the medium), IMs in another (actually, two IM clients), and read blogs in yeat another. Coordinating appointments and to-dos that involve others is managed in yet another app. And an address book app is used as the repository of some of the information about people (like email address, IM handles, and phone numbers), while their blogs RSS feeds are stored elsewhere.

So, I decided to mockup an example of what a good unified client might offer someone like me, so I could sit in one tool all day long, choosing the appropriate communication, collaboration, or coordination channel based on the context.

The Nerdvana Client

Just for laughs, I have dubbed the mocked up client “Nerdvana” after the Dilbert strip where Dilbert proclaims, after he’s cleaned up his PC’s desktop, compacted his drive, and deleted unnecessary files, that he has reached “Nerdvana”.

Basically, Nerdvana takes the IM concept of a buddy list and extends it to include all sorts of media. I have chosen to partition my world into three groups, Inner Circle (folks I interact with daily), Outer Circle (folks I interact with regularly), and The World (everyone else). This is largely for simplicity: there could be dozens of groups. And, oh, by the way, contacts can appear in multiple groups, and groups can include subgroups with no limits on level of nesting.

In the first image, I expanded only the Inner Circle – note I did not include any icons to represent expand/contract because I am a lazy designer. I have a small number of contacts in this group, although in the real world my Inner Circle category is more like a dozen folks. Each contact has four numbers associated with them, which represent ‘of interest’ blog entries, emails, IMs, and appointments, respectively. By ‘of interest’ I mean whatever the preferences are currently set to: for example, I may have configured things to display unread blog entries, unread email, open IMs, and future appointments, to suggest only one reasonable group of settings.

Also note – since this is all in the world of conjecture, so I can get whatever I want – that the Nerdvana tool is extensible, so is possible to add on as many services as you’d like. For example, the IM service could expand to be Jabber, AIM, and Yahoo. Or completely different services could be included, like podcasts, to-do lists, geolocation, and web conferences. Presence is indicated by the green/yellow/red lights on the contacts.

In the second graphic I have expanded Greg Narain’s content, and see various categories of communications going on.

In the third graphic, I have fully expanded Greg’s content, showing the blog entry’s title, the subject line of the emails, the title of the IM session, and the subject of the upcoming appointment. This is displayed two different ways, based on two different sets of preferences or different commands used to expand the content: with and without category headers.

Clicking on any of these fields could lead to extremely variable behavior, based on what sort of client you think Nerdvana should be.

  • In a open API sort of environment, clicking on any of Greg’s content could lead to opening the appropriate tool of choice for that sort of interaction. So, for example, clicking on an email could lead to popping that email in Apple Mail (I am running OS X), and likewise, selecting the IM topic could pop the active IM session running in Fire (the multiheaded IM client I run to stay in contact with Jabber, Yahoo, and MSN users).
  • Clicking on the blog entry could lead to either opening the entry in the browser or popping an RSS reader on my desktop, depending on configuration settings in Nerdvana.
  • In a totalitarian software world, Nerdava would include all the functionality needed: it would be an email client, RSS reader, IM solution, and calendar tool. But such tools are generally not best at any of the things they aspire to be, and wind up discarded as a result, because users want some cool feature in their mail or IM client, or just don’t want to imagine dropping their chosen RSS reader.

Obviously, my preference is the former: for Nerdvana to act as a primary organizing interface for existing communication tools, taking the buddy list concept as the core principle for all communication strategy, and supporting cross tool integration.

For example, your IM solution might not support the concept of an appointed time to start an IM session, but with Nerdvana you can do so:

  1. Define a time and a subject for an appointment, using the Nerdvana interface, but actually managed in your native calendar app, like iCal.
  2. After it exists, select the appointment in Nerdvana, and create an association with some other sort of communication – in this case an IM session.
  3. When the appointment occurs, Nerdvana will create the pending IM session.

The same technique can used to link writing an email with an appointment, or queueing up future blog entries.

Alternatively, you could imagine a structure where important communication events – such as long IM sessions, or time spent reading blog entries – could automatically be journaled on your calendar, as a means of tracking time, or simply being able to use the calendar as a way to search back for communication activities and content on a timeline basis.


I have always maintained that if you are going to dream, dream big. So I have big hopes for Nerdvana. Maybe someone out there is trying to do something along these lines – at least in part – and if so, I want to hear about it. There is lots of innovation going on in the various specialized communication areas: better RSS readers, IM clients, and innumerable social networking apps. But I haven’t seen much going on in bringing it all together, based on something like the buddy list metaphor.

I could also start in on how Nerdvana could play in an open social networking system – where the aggregation of communication channels, like blogs, IM, email, with specialized services like Flickr,, Plazes, and so on, for photos , music, and location – could not only lead to multifaceted digital identities, but a coherent way of bringing together the disparate threads of identity into a manageable tool framework. This starts to look something like Mark Pincus has been looking into in his PeopleWeb thoughts. But I will leave that for the next installment of the Nerdvana series.

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