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social tech musings

2002-11-13 18:49:52+00 by Dan Lyke 11 comments

After my disparaging comments about Kuro5hin, below, I'm almost reluctant to put this up, but... Phil and I were musing on the ferry last night about directions of technology. It's clear that we're in a malaise like the early '90s, a big revolution has happened, incredible things have changed, and yet because we were so caught up in it we're now looking around saying "was that it?". In exploring this, one of the questions we asked was why telecommuting hadn't taken off yet. Both of us could probably do more work at home than we do, but little things keep us making a fairly long trek into the office each day.

So we started wondering how computers and the internet could facilitate the little interactions that make the shared space of the office necessary. Why is email not sufficient? And, since we think we're so good at this, why can't we seem to communicate effectively with some of our other branches?

I got into the internet back in the early '90s because I saw it as a better outgrowth of the social networking that was happening in FIDOnet. I think I use the net as a social tool pretty effectively. I've kept some pretty good friendships going despite moving thousands of miles away from the physical space that those relationships formed in, and I've developed some new friendships that have risen to the "sure you can crash on my couch" form that started with the net, a web page here, an email there.

Anybody interested in brainstorming for a proposal for a session at the O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference 2003? We've got a couple of months, and I've got an office with a couple of eager folks who'd be guinea pigs for playing with conferencing software. Anyone got experiences with "tools for net collaboration", specifically oriented more toward occasional real-time interactions?

[ related topics: Dan's Life Invention and Design Work, productivity and environment Net Culture ]

comments in ascending chronological order (reverse):

#Comment made: 2002-11-13 22:34:47+00 by: other_todd

I work at home three days a week on average. There are two things that bring me into work: 1) any changes involving windowed/graphical unix programs, because I ain't running a remote X server on my Windows machine just to test Unix Mozilla, and 2) meetings with other humans.

I used to gripe about bosses and other higher-ups who got nervous when an employee wasn't in the desk all the time - as if presence at the office is a measure of work done. I also used to gripe about people who needed meetings for something where I felt an email would suffice.

But I have lately retracted a little on both.

Working at home DOES present a bigger temptation to goof off, and though ultimately I am the only person to blame if I slack off and then miss a deadline, I can see where the warm-body-count theory has a basis.

And today was the latest in a long string of incidents where I resolved in a five-minute face-to-face meeting a question which had been tossing around in email for weeks. Sometimes being there in person DOES matter. Emails that have to get through a large group of people (for approval, for comment, etc) are often, unfortunately, processed in serial - like we're handing the information off in a bucket brigade. If you can get everyone in a room, have them say yes or no and why and get out quickly, you have had a useful meeting.

#Comment made: 2002-11-13 23:31:45+00 by: FnDragon

I think spam is one of the detractors from being more communicated and is a good reason why people don't value email as a communications medium. How often have you looked at your inbox, gone "Hrm, spam, spam, spam, spam, (baked beans), spam, spam, spam and spam.. Oh, wait there's a message from Bob." How much patience with Bob's email are you going to have after having dismissed 12 spam emails in 12 seconds?

Honestly, I work from home about 1 day a week (I'm a programmer), and that is because there are some days that I need to accomplish something non-work related that I need to stay home for (FRIGGIN CABLE GUYS..).

#Comment made: 2002-11-14 15:08:16+00 by: ebradway

Working at home: there is a six-month transition period when people first start working from home where productivity drops way-off. Once a deadline is missed, the productivity starts to pick up and eventually surpasses office levels.

Email: I have many friends who claims 'email is too impersonal'. These same friends get mad at me when I type notes and letters. These people are huge hinderances to telecommuting - they need physical contact. I try to tell my friends that I have other friends who I only email. In fact, my Mother and I email each other almost daily but talk on the phone or visit only a couple times a year. Before she started using email, we talked on the phone about once a month. We communicate ALOT more with email than we ever did - in fact we communicate alot more now than we did when I lived at home! A big part of the problem is technophobia.

#Comment made: 2002-11-14 17:33:40+00 by: Jeffery

I manage the data assets for Fortune 1000 company, and my DBA's all work (or have worked) remotely. My strategy was pretty simple. First, I had the remote workers actually work on-site for a period of time to build an effective face-to-face "trust coefficient" with the application owners who they would need to support. Once technical competence and personal "trust" was established, it was rather simple to migrate the hybrid onsite-remote workflow model to a completely remote model.

Most of this really boils down to effective workflow management, and having the tools (and security) in place to facilitate effective communication and collaboration among peers, team members, and other stakeholders in the workflow process. Building the initial human element of "trust" is very key, however.

#Comment made: 2002-11-14 21:25:18+00 by: Dan Lyke

Distractability isn't as much of a problem as I once thought; the office has a lot of little interruptions, and once I'm distracted I'll generally check email, maybe browse a news site to see what the headline is, then try to get back to work. A single interruption costs a lot more than shiny objects, as long as I can get the flow going in the first place.

And spam isn't that much of an issue for this application, I can always set up specific email addresses.

The effective communication and workflow management is the hard bit. For all of the interruption problem, being able to resolve an aesthetic issue in 30 seconds is worth a lot. Getting a few other perspectives on how a control should work is invaluable. All of that stuff is hard to communicate unless I'm in the same room.

Phil and I have been playing a bit with Windows Messenger[Wiki], it took a new NAT box and a few other tweaks to get more than the simplest basics working, and I still can't get it to use the webcam that XP otherwise seems to see just fine (Why is it that working drivers now seem to be easier to come by under Linux?), but it might be a start for a way to throw a bunch of designs and variants up and have different people try them. Some way to transfer source code to artists and designers so we don't have to be passing around huge executables for simple "how does this flow?" problems would be really nice.

Unfortunately, most of the cutting edge apps for collaborative work don't seem to be available under Windows, and several seem to require you to be on the same subnet or have an MBONE router. Last time I did anything MBONEish was 1995, and I'm not sure VPNing everything is smart. Might end up doing that, though, just to see.

#Comment made: 2002-11-15 12:38:58+00 by: meuon

Andrew (works here) just picked up a project that may take a lot of interaction with folks in Atlanta. We just figured on using MS-NetMeeting. What function are you looking for that it does not meet?

#Comment made: 2002-11-15 16:49:37+00 by: Dan Lyke

Actually, that might do it. I just didn't realize that you had to do a "Start->Run->conf.exe" to find the damned thing. I'll have to look and see how it fits into my work flow. For one thing I need to get a lapel mic to go along with my ear buds for my laptop.

#Comment made: 2002-11-15 19:10:05+00 by: canis

Dan, if all your stuff is going to be in Windows, Groove sounds a lot like what you're looking for. No videoconferencing I'm afraid (that I know of -- it takes plugins, so by now it might) but it does live conferencing of voice, text, and vector art, and has assorted other collaborative tools as well: discussion boards, shared file storage, etc.

It's pretty nifty, although I'm finding it less suited to my purposes than I thought I would -- but that's because it doesn't run on my (very, very creaky old) laptop. But if you have the horses for videoconferencing I'm sure you can handle Groove.

#Comment made: 2002-11-15 23:20:47+00 by: meuon

Videoconferencing can stand alone pretty well with someting like TightVNC, and NetMeeting..

#Comment made: 2002-11-15 23:20:53+00 by: meuon

#Comment made: 2003-01-14 19:19:50+00 by: Diane Reese

I just discovered today that Stewart Butterfield, founder and president of Ludicorp (the developers of Game Neverending (GNE), my current insatiable addicti... er... passion), will be speaking at the O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference in Santa Clara in April. His topic is, "The Game Context as a Testing Ground for Social Software". I am so there. I shall try not to worship at his feet. Although I may bring a sheet of purple paper to give to him. (If any of you have alpha-tested the current GNE, be aware that the alpha will be going away on 1/31, not to be seen again until The Real Game opens in the summer. Alpha testers are being offered Pioneer accounts to TRG now, at bargain prices. Mostly to demonstrate player commitment to their investors, I suspect.)