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Communication in World 2.0

Since most software is about enabling human interaction, I find it helpful to think about the different forms of human communication, how they take place in the real world, and how they might manifest on the Internet.

1. Goal-oriented Conversations

Meeting weekly sales numbers, launching a new product, publishing research, raising children, etc. These are most of our conversations. There’s a specific, shared goal we’re working together to achieve. A company or project bonds the pack and it’s working towards progress.

This modality is durable but impermeable. Because the goal is important, it can be done through any medium, from Zoom to morse-code. We’re also less likely to meet new people and create new goals through these contacts. Just repeat interactions with similar characters.

2. Novelty Conversations

Getting dinner, playing a board game with friends, or recapping a movie we saw at the theatre. While there is still a goal, it’s very secondary. The primary objective is to converse and bond, the goal is the excuse for it. It isn’t mission-critical that we finish this board game, it’s just a vehicle for us to hang out.

This modality is not durable, but is very porous. Because the goal isn’t important, Zoom is particularly bad for these styles of conversations. If the medium isn’t comfortable (getting dinner over Zoom), we’ll just stop. Unlike goal-oriented conversations, you often meet new people through novelty events (dinner parties), people that you didn’t have a shared objective with beforehand. The world is low on this style of interaction now. Cross-industry relationships are less likely to form.

What’s the World 2.0 equivalent of this? I doubt it’s staring at a poorly-lit image of steak over a webcam.

3. Serendipitous Conversations

A friend or colleague catches you by the water cooler or the park for a quick conversation. You didn’t plan this in advance, but you signaled to the world by your physical location that you were available for conversation. By visiting a coffee shop you’re communicating that you aren’t focused on deep work right now. You’re available to chat. It is assumed to be acceptable to talk to acquaintances at the park or coffee shop, unlike a bathroom or library.

This is another form of interaction we’re lacking right now.

The Zoom Tax

Now to a related topic: why are Zoom calls draining? Or better yet, why aren’t Zoom calls more entertaining? Forget the eye contact. I think it’s because people just don’t look as good. You’re looking humans from a very unnatural angle. They’re badly lit. It’s not a fun movie. Your mind is comparing it to reality and it’s far less engaging.

The trick is to be good or different. Audio is better because we can approach the natural modality. FaceTime Audio is as good as physical audio, but Zoom is a far cry from physical video. Unless you have a production-grade TV rig and lighting, it might be best for you to go audio-only. This is especially true for Novelty and Serendipity conversations, where the objective isn’t important and the main event is conversation. For now, video is Avis, “We try harder”, a permanent second place to the real world.

World 2.0 Alternatives

Since we lack “comfortable” mediums to hang out online, new digital alternatives will start to emerge for Novelty and Serendipity. They must. Human communication is like water on pavement – it always finds the cracks.

Here are some current and future examples:

Clubhouse. This is an online coffee shop that’s emerging to fix the Serendipity gap. It’s a radio call-in show for the Internet. By opening the product you’re signaling that you’re available to talk, just like going to a coffee shop.

Desktop-only Messaging. Online presence used to be binary: either you were offline or online and fully engaged, ready to chat. Mobile created an interim state, where you could be faux-online, marked as green while idly scrolling Slack at the urinal. At some point someone will fix this with a new form of presence. WhatsApp that only works with full-sized keyboards, for example. 2002 ICQ returns.

Audio and casual games to replace dining at a restaurant. Imagine the scene of a restaurant. Taking in the ambiance. Looking at the menu. Deciding what to order. Listening to another couple’s conversation. Cutting up your food. Chatting with the waitstaff. Tasting the novel food. You don’t actually stare at the other person 100% of the time. You’re listening and engaging in dozens of mini-games going around. This is why I believe voice and games are actually much more akin to the real-world than staring at a webcam face.

Zenly for the web. Similar to the above, except the “game” is “browsing the web”. Imagine the entire web as a physical map, and as you move from cluster to cluster you start hearing friends that are in similar zones. Hover over a link to NYT, hear the quiet murmur of other friends who are reading something similar. Visit the site and volume goes up.

Pixar Zoom. Consider Disney or Pixar characters: they don’t mirror the real world. Instead, the faces have exaggerated emotional apparences, designed to be as thrilling as possible. What I’m describing isn’t just a Snapchat filter. It’s a thing that turns your micro-expression into a macro-expression for the other party. Using it might feel more intimate than seeing someone in the real world.