John Perry Barlow’s open channel epiphany

I guess I missed this, and so it’s a few weeks old, but John Perry Barlow writes about an experience with a persistent audio channel with Joi Ito.

The really interesting shift occurred as we drifted back to what we’d been doing before we started chatting, leaving the audio channel open as we’d did so. We could hear each other typing. One of my daughters entered the room and spoke to me. Joi heard her and said hello. They had a brief conversation, their first since she was a little girl. Joi and I returned our e-mail. I wanted to set up an account on Technorati and broke in to ask him how to do it. He walked me through the process. There were other occasional interjections. I could hear the sounds of construction going on in his house.

For a long time, it was as though we were working in the same room, each of us alone with his endeavors and yet… together. Though half a world away.

This feels significant to me.

In my day job (as an “omnipresent institutional gadfly”) we experienced something similar in our small research workgroup about three years ago. We began experimenting with videoconferencing and essentially stumbled onto always-on video sessions. It was not the result we expected. We thought we wanted videoconferencing in the traditional sense. Instead, we found persistent video and it’s clear (to us at least) that we struck gold.

The members of our workgroup are geographically distributed around the country. We started turning on open channels whenever we were in our offices, mostly to exercise the videoconferencing systems we were experimenting with. At first we ran video and audio channels. Later we abandoned the audio channel and now we run video-only persistent sessions. We essentially have live thumbnail video for everyone in our workgroup, essentially a video buddy list. We can click a thumbnail to get the full-size video stream for that person.

In this role, we consider video on its own terms, as a distinct form of communication with unique characteristics, rather than as a lower form of communication.

An excerpt from one of my papers on this subject:

In a co-located setting, people rely on visual information to determine availability of others. Consider the office door. People glance into an office to check availability, but they follow established social protocols before entering the office. Video naturally builds on these social mechanisms, where the same kinds of familiar visual cues apply. Supporting technology, such as text chat, along with the video signal, can also facilitate these social negotiations of privacy and availability.

The always-on video signals approximate some aspects of sharing the same physical office. In a physical office environment, one can walk down to somebody’s office to see if they are there and talk to them. When people work remotely, that is lost. Sure, we have IM, but it’s not the same. People might take a phone call or otherwise prefer not to be interrupted with an IM and forget to activate an ‘away’ message. You can IM them, but you don’t really know a priori if you’re interrupting. And if they don’t reply you don’t know if it’s because they aren’t there, they’re busy, or they’re ignoring you. A live video stream can provide fine grained presence and availability information — you can see when someone is on the phone or otherwise engrossed.

Managers would like us to believe work happens in formal meetings but studies of real work environments show that the important decisions more often occur in spontaneous, unplanned interactions (in the hallway and at the water cooler). The open video channel increases the chances of successfully initiating these exact kinds of unplanned connections, where the rubber really meets the road.

We have been running always-on video now for several years and we won’t give it up. It is addicting. We know this, but we have not been very successful in getting others to appreciate it. We tried a closed experiment in 2002, but it was a dismal failure. We had smart participants, but we still had a hard time getting people to run the video as open, always-on sessions. People seemed conditioned to using it more like traditional videoconferencing or IM. They would sign in for a few minutes, see if anyone else was on-line, then sign-off. Under those conditions, with only a few dozen participants, the chance of any two users being on for the same 90 second window was very low. Another factor was that when we first ran that experiment the research-grade software was not far enough along in terms of ease of use. It was fine for us techie geeks, but too difficult to setup and use for many people.

We have an on-going open experiment of a more evolved system (and more or less the same system that we use internally) available: EarthLink Videoconferencing Software – Beta. It’s free to try and a lot more polished than it was in 2002, but still it is a just a research experiment and not a commercial-grade app (it works on Mac OS X and Linux, as well as Windows, but there are a few hurdles to setting it up on Mac OS X in its current form — but at least it does work). We use our internal system, derived from esssentially the same code, on Windows, Mac OS X, and various UNIX/Linux platforms on a daily basis.

If I were a better writer and more popular blogger, I think this system would be in wide use by now. It has some very real and practical applications. But as it is, the system suffers a bit because it is a new genre. People try to make it fit into patterns of use for which it isn’t well suited, like a traditional IM system, or the two-party video-phone. Speaking of which, we firmly believe the video-phone and typical video-call, although supported by our system, to be almost entirely void of value, and that is not specific to our implementation. It applies to Yahoo!, iChat/AV (Sorry Steve Jobs) and any other such system. In fact, our studies show that people often ignore the video or even hide or close it when they are engaged in a voice interaction. The video plays a vital role in facilitating such interactions, but video, even high-quality video, tends to play little role in the interaction itself.

Quoting a co-worker regarding our always on-video as something potentially important beyond the remote workgroup application:

Think about how we live with our wives and children: we live together in a *very* small space — a house — but we quite clearly do not always need to speak or interact on a cerebral level to derive comfort or information from each other’s presence. *Just being in the house, visually aware* makes us feel safe and in control and closer to each other.

Like many engineers and techies, we also thought what we really wanted was shared screens and whiteboard. Many people are predisposed to text and audio. For a direct interaction they are wonderful, but in fact, we have the capability of screen sharing and network-based shared whiteboard, but we seldom use it in real life. It has its place and for those times, we often put the video aside to work with the whiteboard and focus our attention on the live audio interaction. But about 1000 to one, we use the video channel, at least peripherally. We all thought what we wanted was shared whiteboard, but we never before had shared persistent video to compare and we obviously greatly underappreciated the personal/human side and how video can add so much in terms of keeping a group connected.

One final discovery we have made about this is that you have to want to work together, or improve your relationship with someone or with your group, in order for this to work. That probably sounds like a “well duh” to many people, but believe me, it is a much more subtle and real problem in many situations. Although it might improve relationships over the long term among people who are remote (even one floor removed) but who are at least neutral on whether they “like” each other, it has essentially no chance of helping groups who are already in some way hostile or aggressive toward one another. That is a problem people would love to solve with technology, but I don’t think it’s going to happen (well maybe through pharmaceutical technology).

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