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Ad hoc interactions in the age of virtual work - an unsolved problem

Kurt Marko Profile picture for user kmarko November 18, 2020
Research announced by an MIT team a few months ago into enabling ad hoc video meetings reveals that there are limited options ahead...

online meeting

The past nine months of isolation-induced 'Zoom-osis' has seen a Cambrian Explosion of social and professional mores regarding remote video meetings. Showing up on time, muting barking dogs, a decent camera angle and an uncluttered background are now de rigeur. Slumbering, wandering off-camera and intimate bodily contact are taboo. Although online meetings and presentations have gotten much more polished and productive, they have also left us more fatigued and dissatisfied with the remote interaction experience.

Videoconferences have also proven to be an abject failure at virtually simulating the ad hoc, impromptu interactions that regularly occur in an office, conference or cafeteria. These 'water cooler' moments are often filled with idle chit-chat, however, they are also the source of new friendships, business insights and epiphanies that enhance our existence as social beings. Although video meetings will never replicate the social experience of the physical world, a team of MIT researchers has developed a system it believes reduces the friction of establishing ad hoc 'hallway conversations' in a WFH environment.

Facilitating ad hoc, private videoconferences

Investigating the limitations of the WFH experience, researchers at the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence saw that "ad-hoc interactions — those ‘hallway conversations' — are among the most important things that people miss,” according to Thomas W. Malone, a Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School. Malone is the founder and director of the center devoted to exploring "how people and computers can be connected so that collectively they act more intelligently than any person, group, or computer has ever done before." Minglr is the Center's attempt at facilitating the impromptu private conversations that routinely occur at events and offices, but have proven elusive in the virtual world. Malone says that:

lots of research suggests that those random encounters are key to creative innovations in cities, research labs, companies, and elsewhere. And we know from our own personal experiences that they are also critical to making new professional connections, forming social bonds, and building camaraderie in a group.

He also believes that Minglr offers a simple approach to enabling such interactions in software. A survey Malone's team conducted at a recent ACM conference illustrates a significant flaw in the virtual event experience. When asked about the importance of various aspects of attending a conference, most respondents thought that watching presentations and panel sessions was important in either context. However, there was a 50-point gap between the two formats in what respondents thought about having informal conversations. The survey also exposed an interesting dichotomy between the travel aspect of physical and virtual events. While 40% of respondents enjoyed the perks of visiting conference locales, an even greater number said that eliminating travel hassles is a significant benefit of virtual events.

(MIT research paper; Online Mingling: Supporting Ad Hoc, Private Conversations at Virtual Conferences. Survey of attendees at ACM Collective Intelligence Conference (CI 2020). )

Aside from making it easier to strike up informal, ad hoc conversations, the MIT team also thought that Minglr could improve on in-person events by more efficiently matching people with similar interests. However, the researchers expressly didn't try to replicate the experience of group conversations using virtual facsimiles like avatars and simulated rooms. Instead, they wanted to keep things simple and focus on the content of conversations, not the sensory experience.

Minglr is clearly a proof of concept with a very sparse UI similar to that of other public chat apps, with a list of logged-in users on the left and a corresponding list of conversation requests on the right. The system is currently limited to one-on-one conversations, although the developers note that group chats are a high-priority addition. They also note that the system doesn't collect metadata about user interests, expertise or other categorical factors that might allow for automatic matching of like-minded meeting participants. Both features are necessary to make something like MInglr usable at an event with thousands of attendees.

(Minglr UI)

Despite the limitations, 92% of attendees that used Minglr and shared their opinion at the ACM conference found it useful and thought that future virtual events should include a similar tool for ad hoc, private conversations. The MIT team hopes to encourage such a feature by making the software freely available on GitHub.

Ad hoc communication on other platforms

Minglr is a new, video-centric take on the familiar text messenger UI popularized decades ago by IRC, AOL IM (AIM) and Jabber/XMPP. As such, it's somewhat surprising that similar ad hoc chats aren't better implemented in the popular videoconferencing applications like Zoom, Meet and Teams. These are designed for scheduled group meeting, however they do support ad hoc meetings by invitation only via:

Each of these has the advantage of sharing a publicly-available link that doesn't require the recipient to have an existing account on the service. Since each of these now enforces meeting admission control by default, it minimizes the security and disruption risk of Zoombombing malcontents. The downside is that, unlike Minglr or traditional IM platforms, none of these shares user presence with potential meeting partners. Collaboration products like Teams and Slack do monitor and share user status, but these only work within one's workgroup or organization.

My take

Striking up ad hoc video conversations remains a problem full of partial solutions that vary according to one's app environment and preferences. The Balkanized nature of today's videoconferencing systems means that we're unlikely ever to have universally-accepted, federated video communication like the phone or email systems. We've coped with the same limitation in messaging apps by brute force: installing and creating accounts for all the major IM platforms in hopes of high overlap with all of your friends and business colleagues.

Every solution to the problem comes with a compromise. Sending Google Meet or Zoom links via email offers a low-friction way to invite meeting participants, but without any certainty about their availability or willingness to converse. Systems like Minglr, Slack, Teams or any of the video-enabled messaging products like FaceTime, Duo, WhatsApp or Discord limit attendee availability to those that already have a particular platform (like iOS for FaceTime) or already gone through the trouble of registering an account.

While Minglr might encourage virtual event organizers to add personal video meetings to their conference app and website, it doesn't address the broader problem of impromptu video meetings with one's broader set of professional and personal contacts. Sadly, the era of WFH and virtual conferences leaves us stuck with the frustration of juggling conversations across multiple messaging, collaboration and social apps depending on the situation and preferences of one's intended participants.

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