Of Fireflies and Ephemerality

I’ve been testing a new Web 2.0 application on the Scripting News website called Firefly. It allows visitors to the site the option of turning on a “chat layer”, where anything they type will show up for other site visitors in a bubble at their cursor position. The bubble is displayed for a few seconds, then fades out — hence the name of the application. Avatars are supported, and web addresses are automatically converted into links.
I have absolutely no idea whether the startup behind Firefly will make it — the application has been out in the wild for less than a day, as of this writing. It is also clearly an early beta: server delays and other bugs are definitely present, and some important features (e.g., spam prevention) are currently missing. Nonetheless, I would encourage educators to give it a try, and potentially consider signing up for the beta. Why?
Well, first of all, Firefly is one of the few Web 2.0 projects out there that emphasizes ephemerality, a valuable property for certain types of learning interactions that is frequently overlooked. True, the current version of Firefly stores a full log of all chat entries, but I have no doubt that this could be easily turned off. Even if it cannot be turned off, I suspect that — much as is the case with Twitter — the appearance of ephemerality will encourage types of interactions that are not seen in other forms of social software.
Additionally, I can imagine uses for Firefly that, while they can be accomplished otherwise, can be carried out in a particularly easy and lightweight fashion using this tool — here are two that occurred to me in the first five minutes of using the application:

  • Image/text commentary: participants in a discussion can point at portions of a photograph (e.g., a microscope slide) or a text passage, and type questions, answers, descriptions, comments, etc. next to it;
  • “Spatialized” text chats: a common complaint about chat tools is that, even with avatars and threads, it can be difficult for many people to follow the overall discussion. However, Firefly allows for using a picture as a “room backdrop” for text interactions: people can “move about” the room by changing their cursor position, so that they are typing in the vicinity of other people who are following that particular thread in the conversation. Even if this doesn’t happen, the addition of spatial cues should help people better follow the discussion, much as they do in the physical world. Of course, the spatial backdrop need not be an overhead photograph of a traditional meeting room: it would be both fun and productive to experiment with nature settings, maps, diagrams, etc.

I’m keeping my fingers crossed that this Firefly makes it past the end of summer…