Suddenly, we’re all working from home and using remote tools to stay connected, a steady trend which has been greatly accelerated. But in that jump, we've lost some of the really key elements of a shared physical space – things that lead to freer, more natural conversation and feeling more together.
Let’s take a look.
In today’s communications products two things are missing:
- A low-friction open channel for conversation to flow (in an office, this is something like passively being near to others)
- Conversation edges – exposure to things to talk about (in an office, this can be observing something that someone is doing)
Let’s talk about open channels first.
When you use Slack, email, or WhatsApp, you are effectively posting a letter to somebody. It may be fast to deliver and small in size, but it’s still a letter. This type of communication is kind of like ping pong in the dark, you know virtually nothing about the other player’s position – with perhaps the only dim lightbulbs in the room: ‘read’,'active’, or 'typing’ status notifications.
What about voice or video calls? Well, they are little more like fishing: you throw out a line and if there’s a bite, the line is connected. But this can also be quite disruptive… much as how you catch a fish and pull it out from its environment, the recipient of a phone call is pulled out from whatever they were doing.
Regardless, both of these different types of communication are very intentional i.e. you need a reason of some kind to reach out. This reason forms a barrier to free flowing communication.
In both cases, once a ‘session’ (what I’m calling a natural active conversation between people) is created, people can talk fairly freely within it.
In synchronous communication (so a voice or video call), the session is formal – it has an official connect and disconnect, and everyone knows the status. Within that, people can speak freely – kind of similarly to an in-person conversation… within the bounds of the intent of the session of course, because it’s so disruptive to whatever else that everyone wants to do.
In asynchronous communication (so back-and-forth messaging), the session is informal, noncommittal, and doesn’t have a clear beginning or end. There’s a kind of semi-synchronous version that can happen when multiple parties are replying rapidly, but it still doesn’t need any reason to come to an end because it’s non-committal.
If we were to put these into spatial terms:
A video or voice call is like entering a temporary room – you can see who else is there, and everyone else knows you are there. However, that room also demands that you can’t be elsewhere. Because of this, they are only created if they are needed for some purpose.
With messaging, it’s like each person is inside of their own private room, receiving and sending paper letters at their convenience, each with little knowledge of when the other person will receive it, or their context when they receive it. This also means a lot of messaging is done passively by the user during other activities – there is no demand for exclusivity and so speed is something of an unknown… if you want to get something done fast, messaging is probably not the way.
The passive nature of messaging means less demand on each party (they’re in their own space after all), but it's also less personal and involves some social friction between each batch of messages, a friction which increases directly if more time passes between batches. As that friction increases, the reason for reaching out needs to be greater and so it ends up pushing out silly, casual or free conversation for stronger reason-based messages.
However, neither of these reflect the casual nature of a conversation in an office, a coworking space, or even just hanging out. In those, people are present in a space together and are ‘open’ to conversation i.e. there is a continuous ‘session' going on, even if people don’t have to actively be engaged in it. (Note: Arguably, a more awkward version of this also happens on a conference call whilst waiting for others to join, but is short-lived and more incidental.)
This open space is fertile ground for social serendipity and natural conversation, but in remote communication, there’s still something missing: a 'conversational edge'
What is a ‘conversational edge’?
It’s basically something to hook onto and talk about – and when the only way of interacting with another is through very intentional methods, there’s little to no discovery of new edges… unless actively volunteered by someone, or perhaps something stumbles into frame (e.g. someone’s dog making a surprise appearance during a video call).
What types of edges are there?
The more you talk to someone, the more you know about them, and the more conversational edges you have – simply put, you just know them better and so there’s more to talk about.
Open channel edges
In a sufficiently low friction, high trust setting, people share voluntarily – they feel comfortable enough to offer these edges up. Most commonly, the hanging-out scenario I mentioned before.
Observed context edges
If two people in a physical space bump into each other when they go to make coffee, that’s something to talk about. The same with the clothes, the weather (sorry, I’m a British cliche), the music they're playing. Our shared context powers conversation. When we aren’t able to see each other and share physical space, we have less shared context.
Instagram Stories is a kind of consumer solution to this:
They are a low-friction context sharing method, that acts as a conversation starter. A person can share something they are doing and that gives an edge for friends to hook onto. One of the reasons this works so well is the ephemerality of a story – it won’t last anyway, so the stakes are lower when sharing (going back to the ‘open channel’ mentioned before).
What would a business version of this look like?
Something like Instagram Stories doesn't feel natural for coworkers – most likely it would become a kind of superficial leaderboard like LinkedIn.
Instead, what I’m building is an experimental way to recreate the feel of voice conversations in a shared space and the dynamics needed for social serendipity:
- A way to share context through a shared digital spatial environment – exposing more conversational edges without sacrificing privacy.
- A low-friction, low stakes and always-on communication mechanism – so conversation can be casual and near-effortless, removing the need for a specific intent in the same way as a call or a message.
Be one of the first to try it out: