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Before There Was Twitter, There Was Dave Winer’s Instant Outliner

David Sifry

Photo credit: David Sifry

Twitter is the glamor girl these days. The latest triumph is the early picture of the U.S. Airways plane that belly flopped into the Hudson River. But before there was Twitter, there was Dave Winer’s Instant Outliner.

Never heard of it? Maybe you have, but I hadn’t. But it’s fascinating and eerily prescient of the rise of Twitter and Enterprise 2.0 today.

Dave can explain it better and more fully, but here’s what I have been reading about it.

Started in March 2002, here’s how Dave described Instant Outliner:

When you subscribe to someone’s outline, expect to see time-based notes on what they’re doing right now. I like to start each session with a top-level headline, and put a time-stamp in the headline (Control-4 on Windows, Cmd-4 on Macintosh). Then from that point, I narrate what I’m doing. When I start a new session, I start a new top-level timestamped headline. Sometimes I carry forward notes from previous sessions.

We can and probably will implement fancier notification routines, we’re ready to do it, but first we want to bootstrap with this brain-dead simple technology. It’s designed so that other outlining software can easily fit into the network of Instant Outliners.

See how Dave described it? “Notes on what they’re doing right now”. What is Twitter’s tagline? “What are you doing?” And notice Dave’s emphasis on designing Instant Outliner so that other software can work with it easily. I read this, and I think of Twitter’s API.

Here’s an April 2002 perspective on Instant Outliner by Jon Udell:

It’s been clear to me for a long while that the only thing that might displace email would be some kind of persistent IM. That’s exactly what instant outlining is. If it catches on, and it’s buzz-worthy enough to do that, we’ll have a framework within which to innovate in ways that email never allowed.

Instant Outliner (IO) as a form of instant IM. Something discussed here before in the context of Yammer. Here’s an early screenshot of IO, showing the organization by person and timestamps:

instant-outliner-buddy-list-messages

I like that the tweet…er…IO note here is the kind of thing you’ll see on Twitter these days. The IO message obviously doesn’t need to abide by the 140 character limit.

Here’s how Dave described use cases for IO:

We start with the Instant Messaging model, which many people understand. You get a structured surface to write on. You get to choose how you want to do it. I think that narrating your work is the way to go. But also answering questions or asking them of people you subscribe to is good too.

What I love about his use cases is how closely they align to Twitter use cases. This was microblogging, before microblogging was cool.

The Concepts We Associate with Twitter and Social Software Were All There

Check out how Jon Udell describes IO way back in 2002:

These are people who maintain outlines, in the form of Outline Processor Markup Language, to which I am subscribing. Some of them also subscribe to my outline, but not necessarily all of them, and this is one of the really interesting twists on email. Communication in this environment is by invitation only, and two-way communication requires mutual invitation. Sayonara to spam. If someone annoys you, just drop his or her feed.

You choose to whom you subscribe, and you only see updates for those to whom you subscribe. I especially like that Jon talked about unsubscribing from people whose feeds annoy you.

Retaining the IO notes and making them searchable as knowledge was another area Dave recognized:

The key is to find ways to flow the stuff entered there into a knowledge base. I have quite a few ideas about that.

Dave Luebbert, a former Microsoft programmer and collaborator with Dave, noted the enterprise social software possibilities of IO:

For leaders of large groups, Instant outlining has the very cool feature that you can allow folks to subscribe to you so that they can see what you are thinking about. The leader does not necessarily subscribe to everyone who subscribes to him because that would overwhelm his thinking process. But those who get to subscribe to one of his Instant Outlines get quite an informational advantage and can work better on their own goals because they have that.

If you’re organized around email, usually the only folks who get to listen are the folks who are direct reports. And those guys are always too busy to pass much info down.

The leaders also get to monitor activity in any of the subdomains of the company. They would subscribe to outlines in different groups of the company at their pleasure, but since they are not intimately familiar with those groups business they would not want immediate notification of changes made to those person’s outlines. They can see all the way down to the bottom of the company if they wish to. That’s been a near impossibility up to now with the communication tools that have been available.

And John Robb adds this thought about Instant Outliner that presages the rise of Enterprise 2.0:

I think this is a major new product that could sell in the hundreds of thousands of seats. It connects IM, weblog publishing (a weblog is essentially a published outline), RSS (if RSS items are brought into the outline), and outlining in a new way that radically improves team productivity. I bet I could do the same thing for this product that I did to business weblogs — turn it from a geeks only product and into mainstream productivity tool used by major corporations.

Based on search results for instant outliner, it appears the technology was most active between 2002 and 2005. I’m not sure the status of the project currently, although Dave Winer does subscribe to an entity called Instant Outliner on FriendFeed.

I’ve known Dave as the father of RSS. Now I know the range of his thinking included early models of microblogging and social software. Which tells me I ought be paying attention to what he’s thinking these days.

I’m @bhc3 on Twitter.

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