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April 01, 2008

The (un)Social Directory

I want to be in an (un)social directory. I want to be accessible to some people, want to be findable by most people, but want to keep complete control of who communicates with me by what method.

The (un)social directory is the inverse of the kind of directories we’ve been living with throughout our lives; that makes it hard to think about initially.

A traditional directory is a collection of information about other people which you own - your Outlook directory, your collection of business cards, a phonebook, the phonebook in your mobile phone. Each entry gives you one or more ways to reach those other people. The information is static. If it changes, you have to both know about the change and take the time to enter the change or the directory will be out of date.

When you give people information about yourself to put in their directories, you are implicitly granting them permission to access you with that information. Once someone knows your mobile number he knows it; you can’t revoke that. You can refuse to answer when you get a caller ID you aren’t interested in but you have to change the number to revoke the privilege of calling it. On the other hand, if you do make a change, you have to find a way to notify all the people whom you do want to be able to reach you that the information changed.

Prepare to invert.

You maintain one copy of your master contact information in the (un)social directory – all of the possible ways to contact you. Everyone else has a similar master contact page which is visible only to her. When two people meet and exchange (un)social contact info, what they are actually doing is exchanging permissions but NOT contact information. Permissions are always revocable. This needs an example.

We meet for the first time at a tradeshow. You decide that you want to allow me email access to you because you may want to buy what I’m selling. I want to allow you both email and phone access as well as IM because I’m very eager for you to buy what I have to sell. We both do something online or on our mobile phones (UI TBD) to grant each other these permissions. Note that we do NOT exchange actual email addresses, IM handles, or mobile numbers.

We now each have two entries in our personal directory. The contact entry I use to reach you has nothing but permissions in it and the address of your contact page (which I can’t see but can get connected to you through). The other entry is the permissions I granted you which are to a subset of the possible ways to reach me. I can enhance, change or revoke these at any time – like if you don’t buy anything but keep calling to tell me about your golf game.

If I change phone numbers or email addresses, it makes no difference to you because you didn’t know what they were in the first place. As long as the address of my contact page remains the same, you’ll be able to get to me. And vice versa.

When you want to call me, you click on my name (whatever name you gave me) and a connection is made through my contact page. There’s some smarts in the directory application so you get the best permitted connection given the media you want to use – real time voice in this case – and the media I’ve permitted you and am available through at the minute. Maybe you’d like to leave voice mail if you can’t get me in real time; maybe you want to IM or email me. You may want me to call you back and can give me temporary permission to do that (remember, you didn’t give me general permission to call). But, since you are leaving just a permission and not a call back number, you don’t have to worry that I’ll pester you forever just because you asked me to call once.

How we get to the nirvana of the (un)social directory is coming up. So is findability.

Posted on my professional interest in this at My New Gig.

Fellow FWD-er CEO Daniel Berninger has more to say about directories here.

Aswath of EnThinnai shares the vision but differs on the business path to implementation.

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