The social agent, part 4: Share

Mozilla Labs Official ConceptThis is the fourth part of the five part Mozilla Labs Concept Series on Online Identity. This post introduces the “Share” verb as a core feature of the social agent. Historically, browsers have relied on email for sharing, but it’s time that the browser did more to make it easier to share across networks — while at the same time reducing unnecessary clutter on webpages. This post describes how sharing could be built in the browser.

Previous entries in the concept series include: Part 1: The Social Agent, Part 2: Connect, and Part 3: Follow.

Also take a look at the rest of my mockups (view as a slideshow) or visit the project overview.

. . .

Looking back, it’s quite plain to see that web browsing, email and chat co-evolved, each being the domain of different applications, and being powered by non-interoperable protocols. Over time, people grew used to separating information consumption from information exchange. The dual use of applications like Firefox and Thunderbird demonstrate this situation, as though sharing and consuming were completely distinct modes of computing.

However, people largely treat these behaviors as one in the same — they’re nearly as eager to share what they discover on the web as they are excited to discover it. It’s just that email is one of the few (clunky) tools they have. And yet, imagine what the experience is like for the uninitiated — launching a browser for the first time (especially if they aren’t inured to the ways of email). They’re going to find it terribly frustrating to share something they find on the web, no matter how great their natural desire is to share it.

This functionality should be supported by our software — browsers included! Social computing is about combining both discovery and sharing — and the social agent can, again, manage such transactions.

Sharing in modern browsers...

Thus, it’s disheartening (is it not?) that the most advanced sharing feature that browsers offer today — in 2010 — is a hand off to your preferred local email client, adding friction and interrupting your flow. Should you really need to launch a separate app just to share a link? ?

Meanwhile, it’s become all the more common to publish content openly on the web — a public display of sharing. While historically people have been hesitant to be too open online, the success of public-by-default services like Flickr over private-by-default services like Kodak EasyShare prove the durability of this trend, which is also manifest in services like Delicious, StumbleUpon, Twitter, and Facebook. It’s clear that relying on email as the primary mechanism for sharing is useful, but not sufficient for today’s web user — whose network is increasingly not found in their email address book.

Enter: the social agent.

Recall that the social agent already manages the people and topics you follow and your relationships with various parties. The next step is to add sharing to the browser. In this way, the tool that you use to discover content will be the same tool that you use to share and rebroadcast that content. Thus sharing becomes a natural part of your routine, and you become a participant-creator of the social web.

ShareThis interface

Now, of course it’s not sufficient to just add a sharing button and call it a day. That’s what so many websites already do, marring their pages with a bunch of tiny icons intended to help you share better! Well, your social agent should banish those annoying pests and make it easier for you to share the links and content with the people that you care about. Sure — for web savvy folks this isn’t necessarily a problem — but as websites become more dynamic and complex, there is a need to make sharing much more straightforward and integrated.

So suppose you visit the New York Times homepage and spot a story you think your friend would be interested in. If you used the “Send Link…” function, you’d end up sending a link to the homepage: nytimes.com. By the time your friend visits the site, the article you wanted to share might have already fallen out of site. Sharing fail!

Yet, you didn’t do anything wrong. You saw something that you wanted to share and used the only tool your browser gave you. Regardless, you still want to share the story!

The sharing selector facilitates intentional sharing

There are a number of ways that the social agent could help you gracefully achieve this, whether you want to share a video, photo, blog post, article, event, or other common web document. For one, the browser can ask you to indicate specifically which item(s) you want to share. It can then attach extra information (related links, titles, descriptions) to your share to enrich your message (Facebook already does this for those of you who have figured out how to use Facebook’s sharing bookmarklet).

Let's send this as a message...

Again, the familiar sharing widget appears, prefilled with addresses from the profiles in that bundle

The browser can also tell you what methods it has available to share content with certain friends, or can make a list of your contacts or friends available through a familiar and convenient auto-suggesting textbox.

Let's drag this item instead...

This means that the browser should help you drag and drop content to your friends, and between any compatible web sites or services.

Additionally, the browser can also maintain a history all the items you’ve shared, giving you the ability to search across them, and bring them back up quickly. You could also filter by recipient, service, time, or where you were physically located when you shared.

Dropped image (from one web app to another!)

Viewing the metadata of the dropped image...

The browser can also follow the items you’ve shared to watch for updates or other changes like new comments. Since following is a feature we’ve already discussed, it’ll suffice to say that the items you share will be recorded and followed for new updates, which will be available in your activity dashboard.

Given how prevalent sharing information has become now that nearly everyone can be reached online, a modern browser should support this behavior in order to make the experience more universal, discoverable, easier to use, and more convenient.

5 Comments

  1. at 10am on Mar 18th # |

    Chris, great post. Definitely see that sharing will play an important role in the future of the browser.

    With AddThis, almost a year ago, we launched a browser toolbar (http://addthis.com/tools) that enabled sharing of any website to any of the sharing services we support.

    It’s been tremendously successful. It’s seeing great adoption and ,on average, people with the toolbar share 39x more than someone who shares with the AddThis button. (http://bit.ly/9zsurY)

    We’re definitely looking for ways that we can continue to evolve it and add more functionality for our users. You have a lot great ideas in this post. We’d be excited to work with anyone who’d like to riff on this topic further.

  2. jens said
    at 2pm on Mar 18th # |

    I like this series, but this post lacked oomph. The UI ideas you show have all been done already as browser extensions or bookmarklets. I’m not sure what value there is in hardcoding them in the browser; it would just slow down innovation.

    In defense of the “Mail Link To This Page” command: it’s great for sending a link to one specific person. Everyone has email already, even my parents who would never use Twitter or even Facebook. And if I’m going to send email, I want to do it from — surprise — my preferred email app, not some browser’s quick-and-dirty dialog box. Would that dialog box support styled text? Would it let me pick from my address book? Would it know what SMTP server to use, or make me configure that yet again in its prefs? Would it secretly put embarrassing boilerplate in the message like “Your buddy $MYNAME thought you’d get a kick out of this!”?

  3. at 2pm on Mar 18th # |

    While they’ve been done as browser extensions and bookmarklets, eventually you realize that the lack of ubiquity of a certain verb in a UI is what’s hold back innovation — because web apps can’t focus on more pressing issues, rather than how many sharing chicklets they have on their site. Furthermore, the presence of such extensions indicate that perhaps this is functionality that SHOULD be made native — rather than ducttaped on after the fact.

    I get your points about the “Mail This” functionality, and wouldn’t want it to go away per se. In fact, if you look at the dialog, you can see that email would still be a first class citizen for addressing people in the browser.

    Still, for folks who use other channels more often than email, there needs to be smoother integration. Currently the way you tweet or send a Facebook message is janky at best — undiscoverable at worst. If you sign in to your cloud provider, all of your message-sending settings are automatically imported — no need to ever fiddle with SMTP or IMAP again.

    It may also be true that the social agent I’ve described isn’t for everyone — but I imagine if I gave this kind of experience to my less-techy friends, they’d probably appreciate how easy it would be to get up and running and just use the thing, rather than futzing with settings that they never need (or don’t understand).

  4. sabret00the said
    at 4pm on Mar 19th # |

    Absolutely loving this, amazing work. What is the chance of this being implemented and when by? I mean just how much of a concept is this? Are we likely to be using this functionality by Firefox 4? Even in extension form?

  5. Mark Cross said
    at 3am on Mar 30th # |

    I seem to “remember” 99% of these “sharing” ideas were actually in the University of Graz’s Hyper-G protocol in 95/96… But then the sheeple came along and determined the landscape. And we got the browser wars. A great victory for capitilism, but a crushing defeat for creativity :-(

    Chris, please keep up the stirling work you do of banging heads together. I don’t think I would ever have the patience.