Virtual Water Cooler Talk
Last Friday morning I was at the Coeur d’Alene Online Marketer’s Group monthly meetup at Calypso’s Coffee in downtown Cd’A enjoying a remote presentation by Matthew Ray Scott on “Virtual Business” (did I get everything?), and during the presentation Matthew mentioned that while there are many benefits to being able to work from home, that he still needed a virtual water cooler environment (yes, I know that I am violating one of Matthew’s recommendations to get rid of the word “virtual”, but for this story it applies). I had just been thinking about that very thing yesterday and realized that my combination of IM (iChat) and Twitter (Twitterific) sort of filled that need but I was trying to put my finger on what was missing that you receive from a real water cooler environment (besides cooler water).
I was still thinking about it even while beginning this article, not sure exactly where I was going to end up with this and whilst I was researching links I noticed that a local business’ web domain had expired. After overcoming my initial confusion, I realized I could tweet a couple friends that belong to the group that frequents the establishment and a discussion then ensued about some possibilities of offering the group’s talents and services to help and promote the business. It remains to be seen what will come from that effort that I’ll hopefully be able to cover in a future post. But a fresh realization of the value of spontaneous, unplanned and casual communication that can suddenly synthesize into a potential and powerful idea generator occurred. Something that self-employed people normally don’t get to partake in if they’ve holed themselves up in their loft or basement with an occasional meeting at Starbucks (or Calypso’s). I’ve found that I’ve truly come to rely on IM (chat) and Twitter (I use Twitterific) as a partial water cooler replacement.
So, what is still missing? One of the things that Matthew mentioned was actually having a video Skype line open all day with one of his partners–basically transforming his home office into a virtual cubicle (sans cubicle walls). That was intriguing to me, because one of the advantages of real water cooler talk is the face-to-face interaction with associates, but without an actual remote business partner, that would prove to be a little difficult for my situation (random strangers might offer some interest–but too weird) and the people that I chat with on a regular basis probably wouldn’t be thrilled with the idea of surveillance. I think there is a privacy threshold that one has to take into consideration for most people. I know that while I wouldn’t mind the instant access, it is more than a little disconcerting to know that everything going on (at least within view of the cam) is observable and listenable by someone else. When there is a physical presence of others, we’re more likely to be on our better social behavior (you know, like not breaking wind or humming obnoxious songs), but without a constant reminder of someone else’s presence, we may behave in a manner that might meet with shock or irritation (or repulsion).
I know that you would conceivably have the video chat window open as a reminder, but unless you have decent screen real estate on at least two screens, the Skype window (or iChat) would be relegated to the back of open application windows while you’re working. Do I want to listen to someone tapping, typing, sniffling, coughing, yelling at others in the house (not that I do any of those things but I’m sure there are some out there who do) just to be able to have always-on access?
The more I think about it, the more I’m thinking that IM and twitter are sufficient for the task for me. In fact, the water cooler has become a whole lot bigger and filled with more interesting people than just those who I used to work in an office with (no offense former office co-peeps). Not that I haven’t worked with very interesting people, but I’m referring to the more mundane small talk that more often than not characterizes real-world water cooler talk. You know, the type that you’re just looking at the clock thinking about the deadline that you’re on, but you don’t want to be rude to your co-worker as their glossing over their gardening cleanup day or about Stargate SG-1.
Twitter allows you that certain degree of rudeness because there’s not as much expectation of an immediate reply. Therefore, you can control the involvement based on your workload. One thing that is not missing is the distraction factor of water cooler talk from the tasks at hand and in this area I can confidently say that twitter far outshines reality for this ability. There are many times when I have to turn Twitter off and set my iChat to “Away” to focus on deadlines. Something that was always hard in open-office environments. But I continue to be amazed by my ability to be distracted (oh, look! shiny!), but I am getting better as Twitter and IM have woven themselves into the fabric of my workday. While there is some overlap for me between IM and Twitter I think Twitter has become more of the background chatter and banter while IM is closer to what I would call a true water cooler experience in addition to being a critical and effective collaboration tool–something that the water cooler was never able to provide. And as for email? Email is the new Snail Mail.