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16.13 Social Web — EMail, Instant Messaging, Blogging And Tweeting Using Open Protocols

The ability to process large amounts of email and electronic news has always been a feature of Emacs. I started using package vm for email in 1990, along with gnus for Usenet access many years before developing Emacspeak. So these were the first major packages that Emacspeak speech-enabled. Being able to access the underlying data structures used to visually render email messages and Usenet articles enabled Emacspeak to produce rich, succinct auditory output — this vastly increased my ability to consume and organize large amounts of information. Toward the turn of the century, instant messaging arrived in the mainstream — package tnt provided an Emacs implementation of a chat client that could communicate with users on the then popular AOL Instant Messenger platform. At the time, I worked at IBM Research, and inspired by package tnt, I created an Emacs client called ChatterBox using the Lotus Sametime API — this enabled me to communicate with colleagues at work from the comfort of Emacs. Packages like vm, gnus, tnt and ChatterBox provide an interesting example of how availability of a clean underlying API to a specific service or content stream can encourage the creation of efficient (and different) user interfaces. The touchstone of such successful implementations is a simple test — can the user of a specific interface tell if the person whom he is communicating with is also using the same interface? In each of the examples enumerated above, a user at one end of the communication chain cannot tell, and in fact shouldn’t be able to tell what client the user at the other end is using. Contrast this with closed services that have an inherent lock-in model e.g., proprietary word processors that use undocumented serialization formats — for a fun read, see this write-up on Universe Of Fancy Colored Paper.

Today, my personal choice for instant messaging is the open Jabber platform. I connect to Jabber via Emacs package emacs-jabber and with Emacspeak providing a light-weight wrapper for generating the eyes-free interface, I can communicate seamlessly with colleagues and friends around the world.

As the Web evolved to encompass ever-increasing swathes of communication functionality that had already been available on the Internet, we saw the world move from Usenet groups to Blogs — I remember initially dismissing the blogging phenomenon as just a re-invention of Usenet in the early days. However, mainstream users flocked to Blogging, and I later realized that blogging as a publishing platform brought along interesting features that made communicating and publishing information much easier. In 2005, I joined Google; during the winter holidays that year, I implemented a light-weight client for Blogger that became the start of Emacs package g-client — this package provides Emacs wrappers for Google services that provide a RESTful API.

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