Working observably: The next best thing to being there

Collaboration platforms aren't just about online meetings. With the right software and culture, the virtual equivalent of water cooler conversations thrive

Working observably: The next best thing to being there

When I joined Hypothesis, my new employer, I wondered: "Why are we using IRC instead of Slack?"

It boiled down to three reasons. First: inertia. The company had established an IRC culture before Slack existed. Second: openness. We're an open source nonprofit, so we operate in public mode as much as we can, and Slack doesn't yet support that mode natively. Third: skepticism. Sure, Slack is the flavor of the month, and all the cool kids use it, but is that really the right reason to switch from standard IRC to a slightly-improved-but-proprietary implementation of IRC?

We continue to waffle on the subject. I expect we'll land in the Slack camp eventually because, to be honest, we do want to play with the cool kids on their home turf. Meanwhile, though, we're enjoying the same kind of virtual water-cooler effect in IRC that we'd be enjoying in Slack.

For distributed teams like ours, that's critical. We almost never get together in person. Our IRC channels are virtual water coolers where we can congregate or overhear conversations that we might want to join. There's a public channel where we discuss matters of interest to the wider open source community that we belong to, and a team-only channel where we talk among ourselves. Both enable the kinds of serendipitous interaction that helps keep distributed teams on track when they aren't under the same roof and can't congregate around a real water cooler.

We don't have Slackbot, the chat robot that assists Slack users with basic tasks, but we do have our own bot called Vannevar. Most of us haven't learned Vannevar's whole repertoire of commands, but there's one we all know and use regularly:

2:58 PM <judell> vannevar: hangout

2:58 PM <vannevar> I've started a Hangout! Join here:

On one level, this is just a convenient shortcut. You can make up any name for a Google Hangout by appending anything you want to a Hangout URL. For our bi-weekly sprint planning session, I'll typically post a URL like this:

Naming things is a famously hard problem; you always have to stop and think. In a case like this, where the name doesn't really matter, it's convenient to ask Vannevar to just make one up.

But that's not what interests me here. What does is the social signal that you send when you coin that name in an IRC channel. The vannevar: hangout command appears in a conversational context. It might be on the public channel; it might be on the private team channel. Either way, it's often true that two people who are talking about something will want to shift gears from near-synchronous, low-bandwidth chat to fully-synchronous, high-bandwidth videoconferencing.

Of course we have private IRC channels, too, and sometimes we use them to arrange the same kind of mode-switch unobservably. It turns out, though, that Vannevar doesn't work in that context. If you want to arrange a private meeting, you have to make up your own Hangout URL and share it privately. Whether that's by accident or by design I'm not sure, but I regard it as a feature rather than a bug. There's a slight incentive to arrange what may only need to be a person-to-person videoconference in an observable team or public channel. Doing that advertises the existence of the meeting to others who may or may not decide to join, but who are in either case made aware that it's happening.

Usually only the two who agree to shift into videoconference mode will show up. But once in a while others will spontaneously join. It happened today when Dan and I were chatting on the team channel immediately after a somewhat testy email exchange among a wider group. The vannevar: hangout invocation was mainly for the two of us. But because it was observable and not exclusive, Jake saw that it was happening and joined us.

It's true that there's no substitute for being in the same place, breaking bread together, trading pheromones, and triggering one another's mirror neurons with full fidelity. But in this case, it was eerily as if Jake saw Dan and me at the water cooler and wandered over to join us. This works nicely in IRC, and it will work just the same way in Slack.

The tools you use to work together do matter. What matters much more, though, is the instinct to work observably.

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