s08e08: That feeling of being there

... Dan has left the chat.

0.0 Context Setting

0.1 Let’s chat on Zoom!

First off: I’m going to experiment and hold a newsletter Zoom chat!

Here’s the deets:

Monday 23 March
12:00pm to 1:00pm, West Coast
3:00pm to 4:00pm, East Coast
7:00pm to 8:00pm, Greenwich Mean Time, which is the best time

Meeting ID: 710 679 622
Password: 070215

This chat is open to everyone, you don’t need to be a paid supporter, and don’t feel like you need to turn on video or anything. You can totally lurk. It would be a bit weird if everyone lurked, though. Anyway, let’s see how it goes. I’ll have to prep for it and everything!

0.2 Actual context setting

It’s midday on Friday 20 March, 2020, day n of the new normal which feels anything but.

I had drinks with friends over Zoom again last night and of course there is a word for this (this time, it’s Japanese, not German, which at the least means it’s shorter to type). I don’t know about you, but hanging out with friends over video felt just like being a teenager again, on a corded phone, tying up the family phone line talking with friends late at night.

This time, instead of talking way past our bedtime (and staying up later than is responsible), it was past our kids’ bedtimes and the drinking was considerably more legal.

I ran into my co-working space yesterday to grab everything from my desk (hard drives, monitor, webcam, keyboard) because the last week or so of sitting in a folding chair or, worse, slumped in the spare bedroom was going to very obviously wreck my body. And then I went to an office liquidator and very responsibly did not buy the $495 Aeron chair and instead got the $280 Steelcase Leap and did not spend the money I “saved” on anything else. And then I went and pulled the plug to switch to gigabit fiber at home which of course is both cheaper and faster than whatever it is Comcast are squirting down their coax. Look at me, doing all the things, keeping my mind off the terror outside.

1.0 Things That Caught My Attention, Etc.

I promised I wouldn’t talk that much about coronavirus, so I’ll try and keep it light:

📺 Pop-Up Video Is The Hero We Need

First off, I’ve had the daily briefings on in the background as they happen to be on about the time I sit down to stare at Confluence and let me tell you, what I wouldn’t give for an MTV Pop-Up Video style edit of the briefings, complete with a) references, b) little graphs and most crucially, c) receipts for calling out all the bullshit and lies.

For the younger people, “pop-up video” was a format on MTV, which was a linear television channel that played music videos (like a YouTube channel playlist), with VJs (like streamers) and oh god just google the damn thing.

I actually suspect that a bunch of people who love Pop-Up Video are the kind of people who’d be sitting there, laptop/phone and wikipedia in hand looking stuff up, which I also suspect is a bunch of the people reading this. It’s as if video isn’t an information-dense enough environment and there’s just so much more you’d like to know about it. The format was pretty much a non-interactive hyperlinked, image-mapped series of still images delivered at 30 frames per second, anyway.

Christina Xu pointed out that this is like the Chinese practice of bullet comments + Billibili, which she wrote up in Bullet Time, published by the wonderful Logic Magazine. Someone should make this.

(Ugh, I just tried that newsletter thing of putting an emoji in lists to see how I would feel about it, and I totally feel skeezy about it. I’m going to leave it in this one, but it does not feel like me, so I’m going to not do that).

Bad software ruins everything, again

Jaana Dogan tweeted about missing a call from her primary care doctor because it came from a blocked number, which was caught my attention and prompted these thoughts:

  1. This is kind of the internet’s fault, specifically the fact that commoditized voice-over-IP bridges, cheap fast networks and cheap fast processors make it easy for you to run a truckload of what would otherwise require lots of Plain Old Telephones over a virtual server.

  2. Phone calls essentially being software (it’s all information, Marty!) leads to the cost of making phone calls plummeting, so that’s why in America at least, of the 20-odd phone calls I get on my mobile a day, about 20 of them are spam.

  3. Software in general is horrible, so I’m going to assume that most businesses have “number withheld” or “blocked number” out of default configuration when you have your own PBX/exchange and people not understanding what that means. You don’t want everyone with their own internal phone having their own incoming number and it takes time and effort and someone to understand what this means if your receptionist/administration staff don’t have their phones set up to send the “from” number as their reception/intake number.

In other words, not setting up your PBX software combined with spam calls means people are missing calls from their healthcare providers in the time of a pandemic, because we’ve been trained not to answer calls from blocked numbers. This is… not ideal.

That feeling of being there

I have been thinking off-and-on about online community (okay, for the last 22 years if I’m being honest) and lately, you can probably group my position into two main areas:

  1. Community requires actual people to nurture and grow, which is the difference between community management/community managers and content management/content moderation.

  2. “Online community” software stagnated ever since the social software boom, where community pivoted from small groups to scaleable management of large groups and also all the money people came in. When the money people came in, then there became more of a reason to fire and reduce the costs of the community managers because hey, we can make money from this.

I’m in a bunch of conversations about what it would look like, or what it would take to recreate a conference experience online. We can skip to the end and say that most of the time, the real underlying reason to go to a conference is the other people you meet (and might meet) there. At least, that’s the reason why I go to conferences. I have not been to trade conferences, but I have to assume that unless the people who go to trade conferences are unconscious vampires emulating real human beings that they too have feelings and that they have “good” feelings when they connect with other beings, whether they are real humans or also unconscious vampires emulating real human beings.

All of this is to say that a) webinars aren’t great, b) nor is Twitch, really, and that if we’re talking about something that gets close to the feeling of being there with lots of people at the same time, for the same reason, then there are intriguing examples!

Here’s a list:

  1. Fortnite.

I keep going on about Fortnite being one of the best predecessors to some sort of shared virtual world at scale and I will continue to hold that belief until something better comes along. This is because Fortnite has both purpose and presence - that it’s a place but also a reason for you to be in that place. That place is mainly running around, falling out of a plane and shooting people, but it’s nice family fun in the same way that Nerf guns are fun in America. Enough people play Fortnite for Fortnite that it’s become a place where over a year ago, cultural events started to happen.

Now, I haven’t been to any of the Fortnite gigs, so I should go and actually do that. But this is what I imagine: you can go there with both your friends and other people. You can talk about it with your friends at the same time. You can also see other people and your friends. You can move around. You can emote, to a degree. This sounds.. pretty good? You get all the benefits of being able to hang around people you know, as well as the chance of meeting randos, or of your friends introducing you to other people.

  1. Matchmaking lobbies

Thinking of Fortnite also makes me think about the system of online game matchmaking lobbies. I play online only very rarely because I’m not that great at shooters, so when I do play, it’s with friends. And the way that works is that a friend says: hey let’s play this, and then we’re both free at the same time and then we go to that thing and we make sure that we both join the same instance and there’s a bunch of other people there too and hey doesn’t this sound a bit like a conference or a gig?

  1. The backchannel

Backchannel snark for live events has a long history. A long time ago, it used to happen on IRC channels in the background at conferences like O’Reilly ETech as well as in shared simultaneous editing applications (NOT APPS) like SubEthaEdit. It was a way, in my experience, mainly for American people to learn how British people can be witheringly and precisely sarcastic in realtime.

This kind of happens at conferences and events in real-life, right? You go see a thing and then you talk to your friends about how that thing went. You don’t, like in a Giant Slack, want everyone to know what you think, you just want to tell a few trusted people. Sometimes the text-only backchannel (which is super low-bandwidth, because, well, it’s text) works and sometimes it doesn’t because you just can’t see each others’ faces. And you can’t just glance over and see that someone is thinking the exact same thing about this company that’s proposing an awesome solution to “improve” employee productivity by using realtime video data and pose-estimation.

  1. Discord

I asked a few months ago if there were any people using Discord for work (and, more specifically, for work that had nothing to do with making videogames). There were one or two, but one realization I had recently was that Discord’s thing about having persistent voice chat and channels really works (apologies for the pejorative) if you’re, I don’t know, alone in a room? Which might be your bedroom? It doesn’t really work, I imagine, in open plan offices. But! There’s an interesting thing, right? That some social, community software only works, or works better, in some physical places.

I need a fifth thing, because having only four things is not only considered bad luck, but also bad pacing.

  1. Fluid groups

Yeah, I know about Slack apps like Donut which are intended to build in serendipity to communication platforms, but… they still feel a bit ham-fisted? Yes, it introduces people, but the je-ne-sais-quoi I get about Donut is the same about a sort of over-eager host who actually ends up making you feel uncomfortable because they’re excitedly introducing you to people. Software doesn’t normally have a range of tone because, I don’t know, it’s hard to configure for a range of tone of voice and otherwise, what would we do? Some human would have to write all of it anyway.

The thing about conferences for me has been: I know some people who are going and then they say something like “hey, don’t bother with going to the sessions this afternoon, come out to the pool on the other side of the river and we’ll introduce you to all our friends”, and then yes, I don’t go to that year’s SXSW afternoon sessions, I do hang out at the pool and I do make a whole bunch of friends* after feeling awkward for the first 45 minutes.

* I can tell, because I am still friends with them and I haven’t been to SXSW in years.

How do you “introduce” people to each other on Slack or on video? How to you make it really easy to join a channel or a conversation? Or more importantly, how do you make it easy to leave? There’s a thing about the kind of person who gets overwhelmed at a social gathering and slinks out without needing to say goodbye to anyone, but I think by default, Slack will announce to everyone that you’ve left the channel, and there are a whole bunch of memes that end with X HAS LEFT THE CHAT.

That’s… kind of rude? I mean, the software is kind of being a snitch and making it impossible for anyone to leave quietly. Ghosting is attempting to leave a conversation quietly, in that way.

Sure, you might prefer it if someone said bye before they left a gathering, but are you really going to socially and publicly crucify them if they don’t? No. But hey, that’s how we built IRC so that’s how everything has to be.

Sometimes, the feeling of being there has to also include the feeling of being invisible.

OK, that’s it for today. Remember, take a look at the top and if you feel like, uh, not being invisible, then come along to the Zoom chat on Monday and we’ll see how awkward we feel together.

I hope you’re doing well and it’s not too crazy out there. Remember to be kind, babies.