Going Virtual, Part 3

Once upon a time, a very long time ago now, about last Friday, people used to go to pubs and bars and talk to each other face to face. You remember. Now that we’re living here in Generation Lockdown, that’s not a thing any more, and so we’re all socialising on Zoom and Hangouts and WebEx. Until last week, I’d never joined a “Zoom party” in my life… this week, I’ve joined four. It’s been interesting, and fun, but humans, we got some details to figure out if this thing’s gonna work.

Let’s start with some observations. Human gatherings exist on a spectrum. At one extreme there’s the business meeting, in which a group of named invidivuals meet at a specified time, for a specified time. During this time, all the attendees are expected to give the meeting their undivided attention. One person speaks at a time, the rest listen, maybe somebody takes notes, and when it’s over, everybody leaves. Now I know as well as any of you that meetings in the real world don’t necessarily work like that, but most of the software we’re using to talk to each other now was designeс сердечным приветомd for business, and so it is designed to try and replicate that experience.

A little further along, there’s dinners, tabletop gaming sessions - probably still the same group for the duration of the event, but it’s a little more relaxed. Then there’s house parties and pub nights, where there’s a definite location where “the thing” is happening, but people are wandering in and out, splitting into conversation groups, branching and merging and mingling and going outside for a cigaratte. And then there’s one of those nights when you head out alone, visit four or five different bars, seeing who’s where, bumping into random friends and friendly randoms.

I love parties and pubs and bar crawls, but the social dynamic of those events is not 20 people sat around taking it in turns to speak. I miss the ebb and flow of social events. What’s the online equivalent of going to the kitchen for a beer and staying in there chatting for half an hour because everyone in the living room is currently talking about school fees and you’re bored off your ass? Where’s the quiet corner where you can sit for half an hour and have a proper catch up with a friend you’ve not seen in a while before going and rejoining the main party? Video chats are very binary - you’re in, or you’re out. Sure, you can be in with your mic muted and your video switched off, but at some point when you decide you’ve had enough, do you interrupt everyone to say goodbye, or just disconnect? Interrupting feels rude. Disconnecting feels rude. The cues around body language that we rely on to know when it’s OK to speak – or that we subconsciously pick up on to know that somebody else would like to say something – are much, much harder to pick up on. And the medium amplifies people’s naturally extrovert or introvert tendencies. People who are loud tend to get louder, people who are quiet tend to get quieter.

There’s also weird stuff here about boundaries. We’re all stuck at home, nobody’s going outside. Everybody’s struggling with work/life balance, and sharing neat ways to deal with it. I’ve spoken to people who go out their front door in the morning, walk around the house and go in through the back door to start work. I’ve spoken to people who have sleeping pyjamas, work pyjamas and relaxing pyjamas - because hey, pyjamas are comfortable, but wearing the same ones for 24 hours is gross. But the psychological cues we get from physical spaces are gone. Office: drink coffee, do work. Pub: tell jokes, drink beer, it’s OK to swear. Home: sit around in your underwear watching TV. Now those spaces are gone and we need to work out how to simulate them. I live alone in a house with a lot of technology; right now I’m trying to work out how to join Zoom calls from my living room TV so I’m not doing all my socialising from my office – partly ‘cos it feels friendlier somehow, and partly because drinking beer at my desk regularly is likely to be the start of a very steep and slippery slope.

I think we’ll figure this out. Some new social conventions are going to emerge, and quickly. Stuff that was just about tolerable when we used video chat for paid meetings will quickly become socially taboo. We’ll figure out how to digitise liminal spaces, we’ll come up with ways to use the tools and tech we’ve already got in interesting ways. This crisis is going to do for online communication tools what World War II did for aviation; we’re going to see an unprecedented wave of innovation and invention. Not all of it will work terribly well, but the things that do will be genuinely useful and a year or two from now we’ll be astonished that we ever tried to do online comms without them.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go. Somebody’s telegrammed me a whatsapp with a link to the slack with the link to the discord where they’re trying to decide whether to go to zoom, webex, jitsi or hangouts later, and I should probably join in. It’d be rude not to, right?