I recently heard about the Kik Messenger app, an instant messaging application for mobile devices which, according to Wikipedia “took only 15 days for Kik Messenger to reach one million user registrations“. Kik Messenger has been described as a BBM killer – and as someone who has never owned a Blackberry phone I was interested in evaluating a cross-platform application who appears to be a competitor to the Blackberry’s key selling point: instant messaging.

I have now installed the app on my Android phone and iPod Touch. I’m familiar with the benefits which messaging applications can provide over email through over five years of Twitter use and am interested in exploring the potential of an app which can be used with non-Twitter users.

However in order to use such communication tools, you need to have people to communicate with. At present I only know the Kik username of one person. My username is ukwebfocus and I’d be interested in seeing how this app might be used to support my professional activities. Perhaps a tool such as Kik Messenger could have a role to play at an event, such as UKOLN’s 3-day IWMW 2012 event, in which it might not be appropriate to use Twitter for, say, administrative queries.

When making use of such new services I use three guiding principles to assist the decision-making process which were described in a paper on “Empowering Users and Institutions: A Risks and Opportunities Framework for Exploiting the Social Web“:

  1. Understanding the reasons why a service will be used.
  2. Understanding possible risks in using the service.
  3. Identification of ways of minimising such risks.

A summary of how these principles have been applied in installing Kik Messenger are given below:

Reasons for using Kik Messenger
The reasons include:

    • A desire to evaluate instant messaging tools to complement use of Twitter.
    • A need to evaluate tools which can be used to support communication needs at an event.
    • A wish to be an early adopter in use of a social networking / communications tool in order to claim a meaningful identifier and to facilitate the development of a community.

Risks in using Kik Messenger

The risks in making use of the tool include:

    • The tool may fail to reach a critical mass.
    • The service may not be sustainable and the terms and conditions may change or the service itself, and the accompanying network and data may be lost.
    • Use of the tool may result in a failure to make use of richer alternatives.
    • The tool may not address a significant need.
    • The benefits provided by the tool may not be sufficient to motivate others to use it.

Approaches for minimising risks in using Kik Messenger

The approaches being taken to minimising the risks include:

    • Raising awareness of the tool across my network.
    • Acceptance of possible loss of content and community (as is the case with use of Twitter and text messaging on my mobile phone).
    • Evaluation of use of the toll in different contexts.
    • A willingness to use the tool in a small-scale context if it fails to gain significant market penetration.
    • A willingness to accept the time lost in downloading and learning use of the tool if the service itself is not sustainable.

On his blog Doug Belshaw has documented his “3 principles for a more Open approach” which appear to provide a similar goal in documenting principles to aim the selection of new services:

“I’ve come up three principles to guide me:

    1. I will use free and Open Source software wherever possible. (I’m after the sustainable part of OSS, not the ‘free’ part)
    2. If this is not possible then I will look for services which have a paid-for ‘full-fat’ offering.
    3. I will only use proprietary services and platforms without a paid-for option if not doing so would have a significant effect on my ability to connect with other people.”

It is interesting to note the differences between our two approaches. Doug, it seems, very much focusses on the service itself (it needs to be available as open source software) and a particular business model (a subscription service, rather than one which is funded through advertising, for example) although, like me, he provides an escape clause which acknowledges that there are risks in failing to use a service if doing so would mean he was unable to fulfil particular requirements. My approach, on the other hand, focusses on the outputs of the service and takes a disinterested view of the development approaches.

The principles which Doug mentions do, of course, have validity. However for me Open Source Software is simply software which should be evaluated alongside proprietary software, with an open source software licence being no guarantee of the value of the software or it sustainability. I agree with Doug on the value of services having a variety of business models for their sustainability. However although the availability of open source software so that users can install the software on their own server may help Doug, who runs his own dougbelshaw.com domain, and others who have the technical expertise, time and motivation to be system administrators, for many people this will not be the case. It should also be added to the availability of open source software is also not necessarily a guarantee that one’s host institution, which has traditionally provided the IT infrastructure will install the software. Indeed, even if software, including social software, is installed within one’s host institution, there is no guarantee that the service, the data or the community will be available if one leaves the institution. As Sarah Lewthwaite in a post entitled University Email: A PhD Exit Strategy reminded research students who were about to finish their PhD:

Your email account has been an academically sanctioned identity for three or more years. And, unless you have a particularly benevolent institution that guarantees email for life, your account is about to end. Full stop. You may receive a letter asking you to ‘forward all important emails to an external account’ before your account is sedated (suspended) and put out of its misery (erased). If, like me, you have come to rely on your university email, you need an exit strategy, fast.

Sarah went on to reiterate this point:

“Now, two essential factors come into play. They’re so important; so you can quote me.

    1. Your email is not yours. It belongs to your university.
    2. Your university email address constitutes and validates your academic identity. This signifier is about to expire.”

If you (as is the case for me) you do not wish to become a system administrator, you should understand alternative sustainability options. Many people will be happy to make use of free services for which advertising and other uses of activity data help to fund the service whereas others, such as Doug, will be willing to pay a fee for such advertisements to be removed.

It will be interesting to see the approaches to sustainability which users will select. There will be personal factors which come into play – and as someone who is happy to pay my TV licence feed and accept that when I watch ITV for ‘free’ that “I’m the product, not the user” I have chosen not to subscribe to Sky because of my antipathy towards Murdoch (although I have watch football on Sky in pubs).

Revisiting my initial comments about the Kik Messenger service, I should probably add that there would also be costs and risks in using an open alternative (perhaps Jabber/XMPP). But what if a proprietary approach, though not platform-specific such as Blackberry’s BBM, is needed in order to establish that there is a real user need and establish appropriate technical requirements before the open alternatives are developed? Karl Marx suggested that there were a number of evolutionary stages in society’s development (the slave society, feudalism and capitalism) which had to be passed before a more equitable society was reached. The evidence of Twitter’s success and social networks such as Facebook hints at the difficulties of achieving the seemingly more equitable online environment which, as Doug describes in a post on Why we need open, distributed social networks supporters of identi.ca and Diaspora claim these services will provide. But can we build Openness in one country or might Blackberry BBM users benefit from moving to a more open cross-platform solution which has an API, albeit a solution which is not open source and for which, according to the FAQ, it does not seem possible to pay for an account?

Twitter conversation from Topsy: [View]