A Place to Hang Your [Online] Hat

This idea will not let me go. I can’t stop thinking about it and I would love for a few people to fully understand it so they can tell me whether I should move on. Seriously, I’ve been staying up until 2am on recent nights trying to define this and to absorb related information. My wife would be grateful for your help :)

Lastly, if you wish to leave feedback please read this entire post. I know it’s a lot to ask but what I’ve described below is an inter-connected ecosystem.

What I outline here is something I would greatly desire to experience (as far as the personal dashboard, which I will now describe).

A Place to Hang Your [Online] Hat

Facebook is for friends, Twitter is for fans/strangers, LinkedIn is for business associates and Google + does all of these relationships. How do you manage all of these and other online activities without opening 5 to 10 browser tabs and logging into each service individually? There should be a dashboard for all of these social services that is really an anchor for your online experience.

Such a dashboard would be customizable. My dashboard would gather notifications from the social networks or communities I belong to. It would include a Gmail widget, would have a list or tile-arrangement of my favorite sites, would have a calendar module that connects to Google and Apple calendars, would have an RSS reader, would have news or other widgets from my favorite sources and it would have a chat client so I could talk to anyone from any other chat service. I would receive notifications from all other services directly to this space. The space would be expansive and easy on the eyes. Organization could be setup with tabs so that each widget or collection of widgets is bigger and easier to work with than those in similar spaces, namely iGoogle.

The dashboard would be my personal space online. It would help put into perspective my different online relationships by bringing management of social services into one place. For example, I would be able to observe where I spend my time, whether on Facebook with Friends, Twitter with strangers/celebrities or LinkedIn with business connections. Those three types of relationships are just part of my life. Beyond these social connections I do online research, I use email, I schedule events with people unrelated to the networks, I chat with my family and friends, I log in to numerous other websites where I have accounts but I also interact with my family and my co-workers. All of these things should be at my finger-tips with one log in.

This space would be mine. No one else would share it or see it. With one log in I would have my personalized portal to the rest of the internet. Instead of duplicating features from connected services, this space would display notifications but only offer limited features that relate to specific services (you wouldn’t be able to accept friend requests with Facebook using the dashboard, you would have to go to Facebook for that). In this way, the dashboard would be a staging area or portal to the rest of the web. It would be a place I came back to after visiting Facebook, Twitter or anywhere else. Using the dashboard would cause users to rely on their networks and feeds to learn about new things on the internet (even more than is happening now).

A similar experience can be had using a browser with extensions, plugins and LastPass. However, that situation is not portable and does not provide a cohesive experience. Nor is it something the lay-user would be inclined to setup. The dashboard would live online so that anyone can use any computer to access it from anywhere (as apposed to creating a custom browser that must be installed on each computer you use as is the case with Flock and Rockmelt).

Connecting Your Personal Dashboard to Other Users

Strictly speaking, you wouldn’t connect your dashboard directly to another user; that would be duplicating Facebook and other social networks. Rather, you would connect with other users through entities.

Connecting to an entity isn’t a trivial thing. Doing so would mean you spend a considerable amount of time interacting with the people or spaces which that entity embodies. For example, you might connect to a household entity, a company entity and a local government entity (and that’s it). Entities could offer a collection of widgets that became available for installation to the user’s dashboard once they were added as a member of the entity.

An entity is a close (as in near) network of online places. Places could be web pages, web apps or they could be custom built using various pre-built widgets or truly custom built using APIs. The places of an entity would be related and might have similar function to the way a living room and kitchen are related to a house or a break-room and conference room are related to a company or a mayor’s office and visitor’s center are related to a local government. An entity is closed to everyone except those users who are members. That is why places are not public-facing websites. Places are online representations of internal activities that members engage in while at that entity. Each place will indicate the number of current occupants, have a list of the occupants’ names and include a non-persistent chat. Indicating occupancy and having place-specific non-persistent chat encourages impromptu communication when two members meet in the same place at the same time. Here is an example:

If there was an entity called HOUSEHOLD it would have places named: living room, kitchen, theater and office (more or less). Each of these places would provide services related to their physical counterpart. The living room would have a family feed. Any members of the HOUSEHOLD entity could view and add updates to the feed. The living room might also contain a household calendar and digital bulletin board and would serve as a place for members to hang out. The theater might be a place to view streaming video from a family account (think Netflix and Hulu). If a streaming service allowed only a set number of videos to be watched at the same time, two in the case of Netflix, than a member could have the option of watching the stream with one of the other members who was currently watching (if that was allowed by the person who started the video). The theater might also be the place where family photos and home-videos are stored and displayed. In this example, the HOUSEHOLD entity could provide a chat widget to each member’s dashboard that linked only with other members of the household (which would include a household chat, one to one chats and a chat in any other arrangement of three or more members).

In the example above, the HOUSEHOLD entity existed as one unit, the main unit (like a layer or section). Other entity types might have multiple sub-units. These sub-units would also contain places but access would be limited to only the users who were invited to that unit-subset. This method of sub-units would allow for leadership, departments or teams to communicate or collaborate in smaller groups but still maintain connection to the entire entity. Let me provide another example:

The COMPANY entity could have it’s main unit of networked places that everyone in the company had access to and could participate in. This entity might have places like: break-room, lobby, Accounting, IT and HR. These places represent activities that all employees might engage in. HR and Accounting are probably obvious but they would have widgets or web pages to assist in the things like changing your address that’s on file with the company, requesting time off or uploading a profile picture for use by the company (like on their company website). Departments could have their own unit-subset to make it easier to communicate and collaborate as a team. Examples of sub-units are: IT, Accounting, Marketing, and Sales. The IT department might have tools that are custom built places. A work-order or ticket system, as a place, would include a main-unit-facing widget for all employees. This widget is what employees would see as one of the places in the main unit. They could use the IT place to submit support tickets. The IT department side would be a place to manage all of the support tickets that get submitted.

In this COMPANY example, I introduced the concept of sub-units which allow for an entity to break-up the user experience into smaller groups to offer a more organized collaborative space. By using existing hierarchical structures, like departments in an organization, it creates logical divisions to break up what could be huge populations of members. Users would become members of a unit-subset through invitation only. However, that space, the collection of places, would remain open to the rest of the entity to view or contribute as observers. It is important to allow teams to have their cohesive structure while still facilitating transparency and outside collaboration. Obviously, there are some departments which may require full privacy of their unit-subset (HR and Accounting, for example).

Sub-units provide an interesting structure to this paradigm because they can be used in a number of different ways. They can be used to aid collaboration and teamwork but they could also be used to create an entity that is highly structured and controlled. By making most or all sub-units in an entity private, the creator could develop levels of access and control that might be similar to a military command structure. A widget that might be used in a HOUSEHOLD to assign chores to children, might also be used in a structured entity like this to issue orders to subordinates; either individually or through sub-units.

When a user becomes a member of an entity, a tab is added to their dashboard. That tab would act as the primary portal to that entity. When a user logs on to their dashboard they have all of their personal online services at their fingertips but they also have access to entities where they are members.

An interesting perspective on this idea is thinking about representations of how we use our time. This web app would do a better job of giving weight to those places where we spend most of our time, specifically home and work. HOUSEHOLD and COMPANY entities would facilitate heavier involvement than other online services. In this way, we respect these existing human constructs where we tend to spend the majority of our time. It would provide an alignment of our offline to online worlds.

The ecosystem I describe here would change how people interact with the raw web by adding a customized filter to help simplify the online experience. But it would also drastically expand our online presence because it would seek to put online those entities that do not already have representation online. The idea uses some of the same psychological hooks that made AOL, and to an extent Yahoo, so popular, initially, with their curated experiences. However, this dashboard is different because it takes a step back and provides a framework for you to create whatever curated experience you want using your choice of services.

There has been an increase in the popularity of smartphone and web apps that provide curated content. That trend makes me think general consumers are becoming overwhelmed with the raw web and desire a simpler experience. This ecosystem would be an evolution of that trend.

The personal dashboard is something I would find greatly useful. I could see the typical user’s internet experience heading toward something like this. The addition of entities seems like a natural extension of two paradigms used for the dashboard. I like to think this is a good, even great idea but it could be that I think differently than most people and that I’m not actually a normal consumer.

Thanks for your feedback!