Hugo Van Vuuren, Berkman Fellow and graduate student at Harvard’s Graduate School for Design and Gregg Elliott, researcher at MIT’s Media Lab, tell us that we’re experiencing a global communications “crisis”, one that we can address through better communications protocols.
Hugo sets the stage at today’s Berkman Center lunch talk, showing us the beginning of this video from design firm JESS3:
He summarizes the crisis, as he sees it, with a quote from Swiss designer Tina Roth Eisenberg: “Too many channels. Too many messages. Too much noise. Too much guilt.”
Lots of people are trying to build tools to cope with this flood of information. (Google’s priority inbox is one possible example of a tool to manage an overload of messages.) There’s less effort focused on overcoming the guilt. When we see people talking about reaching “inbox zero” or declaring “email bankruptcy“, they are looking for ways to deal with the guilt.
Even in an age of social media, mail and phone contact are massive in relation to new forms of communication. Russell Munroe’s legendary Online Communities map from 2005 has been updated for 2010, showing that massive social networks like Facebook are dwarfed by SMS, phonecalls and email.
Some recent articles in the New York Times – “Don’t Call Me, I Won’t Call You“, “Keep Your Thumbs Still When I’m Talking to You” – suggest that we’re seeing a conflict in cultural norms. Some people (me, for one) don’t answer the phone except for scheduled phonecalls, which is deeply confusing for people who consider phones the primary way to contact people. Some people check mobile phones while carrying on conversations, which can feel extremely rude to people who focus on face to face contact. Hugo points out that there can be differences in community protocol from one side of a university to others: “The Media Lab is much more of a phone-centered place than the GSD. At the GSD, email is something you do at your desk…”
We’re starting to see the explicit emergence of communications protocols. danah boyd‘s “email sabbatical” involves discarding all email received during a vacation – if you want to reach her, her autoresponder tells you, email her again once she’s come home. Tim Berners-Lee’s home page includes a complex protocol about what you should and should not email him. Harvard CS professor Harry Lewis suggested to Hugo that one of the massive problems in organizing a conference is figuring out how to contact academics, who tend to hide between different media, letting some emails go to administrative assistants while “real”, direct email addresses are carefully preserved commodities.
Hugo shows five.sentenc.es, an intriguing attempt to simplify email conversations by declaring that emails will be answered in five sentences or less. The hope is, by declaring a different protocol, it will no longer be considered rude to answer emails compactly and succintly. But this is “a kernel, not a generalized idea” for communications, Hugo offers. We need something broader and more inclusive.
One option is “stop and go signaling”, which we see on tools like instant messenger. But these status messages, which Greg explains used to be expressive, much like Facebook status messages, have turned into their own sort of protocol. “Away usually means that you’re at your keyboard, but busy.” It’s a step in the right direction, but perhaps too limited a vocabulary.
Hugo shows us a code of manners presented by the “Children’s National Guild of Courtesy”, a British organization from early last century. There are no single norms for behavior these days, set by institutions like this one. Norms are now set by individuals, or illustrated by example for leaders within communities.
To address these issues, Greg suggests that we need to:
- Define our rules of engagement
- Organize a system to execute on those rules, and
- Share your rules and expectations
Protocol.by is a first pass at defining and sharing these rules of engagement. Coming out of a closed alpha test shortly, it lets you register an account and compactly state the ways in which you’d prefer to be contacted. Greg explains that he dislikes spontaneous phonecalls – his protocol tells people not to call him before noon, and not to expect an answer to unscheduled calls. For emails, he urges correspondents to avoid polite niceties and get to the point. For people unsure of how to contact him, these protocols can make it easier for people to contact him in a way that’s minimally intrusive and maximally effective. (I have a protocol, if you’re interested…)
The goal for the site, Hugo offers, is for the site to become a “social anchor” to help bridge across multiple identities and online presences. In the long term, it could plug into location-based services and offer richer, more targeted information on how to contact people politely. A group could use protocol.by with voting systems which could help group protocols emerge.
Going forward, protocol.by might offer suggested protocols based on your identity – if you’re a technophile, you might want to be contacted with email and IM, not phone, for instance. Over time, these might emerge as a small set of cultural norms, rather than purely personal norms.
There’s dozens of questions from the Berkman crowd, as well as many observations phrased as questions. Some of the highlights, to the best of my reporting ability:
Q: Is there a revenue model for protocol.by?
A: Not at present – it’s a research project. In the long run, there might be fun ways to use the data, perhaps the way OKCupid analyzes dating information, in a way that might have financial value.
Q: Protocol-free communication leaves a lot of ambiguity in communications, which can be a good thing. Is someone not answering their email because you contacted them the wrong way, or because they don’t want to talk to you. Is it such a good idea to squeeze out this ambiguity?
A: You’ve got a good degree of freedom with the tool in how explicit you want to be. If you offer promises – “Emails will be answered within 48 hours” – you eliminate ambiguity. But a prioritized list of communication protocols is still pretty ambiguous.
Q: This system is very elegant, but it doesn’t recognize that you might communicate differently with a babysitter calling you about an emergency and an undergrad asking to interview you for a paper. How does the system handle this?
A: Protocols will likely differ for complete strangers versus friends and family. Protocol.by is mostly for people outside your circle of trust.
Q (David Weinberger): How many users do you need for this to be an effective research project and how will you get them?
A: There are about 500 users thus far. Having a few thousand may let us run bigger experiments. We’ll get more by embedding the tool into webpages and social networks.
Q (David Abrahms): I might want to be contacted via phone, but if I’m in Beijing, I’d like the system to accomodate that.
A: Great idea.
Q: (David Weinberger) There’s certainly a need for more metadata about your norms when you communicate with people outside your community. We need it for IP issues as well – Creative Commons helps us communicate what you can do with your content. Maybe this is a model for getting people to adopt this protocol?
A: Figuring out how to embed this well is going to help us work through these issues.