It’s 2018, and I haven’t been a fan of talking to people since I discovered AOL Instant Messenger at age thirteen in 2003. Even writing out the entire name seems tedious — it was simply AIM back then. The ‘send’ and ‘receive’ message notifications are reminiscent of my childhood the same way a previous generation remembers the sounds of Atari and Nintendo. Once my family broke free from the chains of dial-up internet, instant messaging became elevated to an even greater status. Now that the phone line and internet were separated, my parent’s no longer kicked me offline to make or receive a telephone call. As a result, I had unfettered access to a monitor that housed as many chat windows as my mind could handle. And behind those windows — whether it be a quarter mile down the road, five-hundred miles across the country, or 5,000 miles on the other side of the world, there were people on the other side of their monitors as well.

Instant Messaging

Chat was superior to talking in countless ways: no one could hear our conversations, we used abbreviations, we invented our own acronyms. I never talked on the telephone anymore, except for rare situations when I wasn’t online and someone really wanted to talk to me. While AIM had limitations, technological restrictions were not the reason for his demise. Similar to MySpace, AIM users migrated towards FaceBook and Twitter — familiar products, only better. Although I knew there was someone else in the world chatting on a computer of their own and that experience felt so real to me, technology has a way of desensitizing us. Similar to how I once disregarded my GameCube and DreamCast in lieu of faster systems with more impressive graphics. Why play PS1 when I have a PS4? Don’t get me wrong, I love retro games, but I prefer current gaming the same way I generally enjoy movies in 4k over black & white.

What Makes A Great Service Die?

Percy Shelley’s “Ozymandius” speaks of the years of unrelenting desert sands that ultimately topple the statue of a once-great ruler. When Ozymandius’ visage finally fell, no one was around; AIM was discontinued on December 15, 2017, and I wouldn’t have known if not for writing this article. Most past products and services we love don’t immediately die, they slowly fade until someday someone realizes that no one cares anymore. I struggle to imagine what social networks will overtake Facebook and Twitter, what streaming service could ever top Netflix or Hulu, but I sincerely doubt that these companies’ monuments will stand forever. The internet is a living organism of constant change that shapes how humans interact each other and the way we view ourselves.

When Apple released the first iPhone ten years ago, did even Steve Jobs himself, the visionary that he was, predict its true impact? When the first kid at my high school got one, I was still texting in poverty on a Motorola RAZR. No matter how so spectacularly cool I felt months earlier, his phone was all screen and mine was a flip phone. To quote the legendary Russ Hanneman, “I have a car … who’s doors go like this, not like this!” The game had changed.

Billionaire Giphy

And the game keeps changing. My current iPhone X has more computing power than what sent our first astronauts to the moon. I don’t have a source for that, but it sure sounds right. Give a phone all the processing power you want, we’re all still going to be snapping selfies and sending texts. I have nearly every song ever recorded at my fingertips the second I open Spotify, so why do I still occasionally spin an old Ella Fitzgerald or Louis Armstrong vinyl when I get home from an exhausting day? Why did I visit a vintage electronics store to buy a GameCube controller so I could play SSX Tricky and 007 Nightfire again? Why is my best friend restoring a 1967 Pontiac Firebird? Technologies fade. The principles behind them don’t. Music is still music. Video games are still video games. Cars are still cars, even when we start launching Teslas into outer space. For all the ways Slack is vastly superior to AIM, I enjoy using it for many of the same reasons. Web design has travelled a long ways since the late-90’s era of poorly formatted Geocities websites with horrendous color schemes, but progress is not always positive.

When Developers Get Drunk on Manifest Destiny…

Hamburger menus offer developers the ability to place much more information on a page, especially for mobile users. But at what point does this progress — the advance of design — actually become counterproductive? Users are shown progressively less content and forced to hunt for the rest. Sometimes I feel that my mobile web experience is becoming more unintuitive daily. Users often have too many choices which cannot be adequately viewed on a screen smaller than a notecard. We must return to a conversational approach.

Kill the Hamburger Button Techcrunch

Feeling this way does not make me some old technological curmudgeon. As of 2016, messenger apps surpassed social networks in monthly active users. While messenger apps are great from a social standpoint, businesses struggle to utilize these except in a live chat-esque solution. Everyone loves to text, so why don’t retailers use this to their advantage? The only way to bring up my iPhone’s on-screen keyboard on a website is to type in the search bar. While the trusty search bar is useful for many online queries, it doesn’t actually help customers find the product they’re looking for in a sea of similar items. The navigate, search, filter model is beginning to feel a bit archaic.

The Dangers of Arriving to a Party too Early

AI is the way of the future. But it is still in the future, at least for most businesses (instances???). At the moment, businesses use real people for a variety of reasons. Although expensive, people are relatively predictable. Microsoft’s Tay was not.

If this came from Microsoft, no other competent tech company would dare have the hubris to assume they could do it better. The state of AI today is a bit similar to Apple’s Newton or the PalmPilot; Microsoft’s debacle occurred nearly two years ago in March 2016, and while AI has gotten better, it’s still probably not good enough for wide scale ‘consumer’ use. If Elon Musk thinks artificial intelligence poses an existential risk to humanity, we should pay attention. However, since he’s still busy launching 64-ton Falcon Heavy rockets into space and not hiding in some underground bunker, I’m going to assume AI hasn’t quite reached world-conquering status yet. Although AI bots can already create their own language. So if chatbot AI isn’t quite ‘there’, where does that leave the technology in the meantime? Autonomy isn’t the correct answer, but limbo certainly isn’t either.

Where Do We Go From Here?

At ZipThunder, our solution thus far is to sit tight on ‘artificial’. We create intelligent chatbots that leave the guesswork out by leveraging existing data. Our goal is to help users find information exactly when they need it. This enables merchants to harness the power of chatbot technology without the embarrassing mistakes (see Tay). While it’s obvious that there is a bot, not a person on the other end, this still feels like a valid interchange. Chatbots modernize websites by allowing users to browse in an informal fashion. They deliver information quickly and can scale in ways that makes human multitasking look painfully insignificant. They’re scary, but so was the World Wide Web. I want a combination of new and old, like when I spin Kanye’s Yeezus on vinyl. I’ve been chatting with people online since 2003; If AI is truly the future, ‘people’ is the word in that sentence which won’t make sense in another fifteen years, at least from a business standpoint.