Years ago, I made the observation that as we become more connected online, in networks whose value is a function of our sharing, time itself becomes a shared resource. And therefore, our time is no longer our own, but that is actually a good thing. Time is the new space.
One manifestation of this is the growing use of real time communication tools in the enterprise. This past weekend, I posted a weekly update (see Real time isn’t what it used to be: It’s really real time, now) in which I talked about the reasons for this rise, and looked at Talk.co as a minimum viable product example of a real time communications tool (a “chat” tool). I also mentioned Glip and Slack as new competitors in that space, and later in the week I reviewed Glip (see Glip is a “conversation platform” in the work management space). But before I could review Slack in detail I received email about another competitor called Sqwiggle. Yikes! This doesn’t include established tools like Hipchat, Campfire, and Glassboard, or the many others already available. At any rate, I decided to do a twinned first take of Slack and Sqwiggle because I am afraid that I will never catch up. What if there are three more next week?
Slack is the conversational tool from Tiny Speck, founded by Stewart Butterfield of Flickr fame. He signed up 8,000 companies in the first 24 hours after the launch in August, and it is intended to be more than just a chat utility. It also serves as a file manager — based on its search, it’s much better than storing anything on your hard drive –and as a Yammerish work media tool. But his aspirations are greater: he wants Slack to be the social layer for a company’s information flow on tools like Dropbox, Zendesk, Heroku, and Helpscout, where the messages from those apps would surface in appropriate chats on Slack.
Slack’s UI has so-called ‘channels’ or chats on the left, the stream of the selected chat in the middle, and the results of search shown on the right.
The experience of watching over Stewart’s shoulder as he conducted business and gave me a fast demo was a/ vertiginous and b/ revelatory. With regards to b/, I was blown away by the torrent of information banging against the inside of his display — notifications of external apps, people pinging him for info, the results of searches — and I could sense the faint outlines of a different mechanism of group connection and personal productivity.
I will hold off on a deeper analysis, since I haven’t used the tool for more than a few minutes. What I’d like — as in all these chat tools — would be to observe a group using the tool for at least a few hours. I’m going to have to figure out how to do that, but probably by some team inviting me in like a new employee for an afternoon.
Sqwiggle is a tool based on a different fundamental premise than most social tools, even real time ones. The idea is that people working in a team simply leave their PC cameras running all through the workday, streaming their presence to each other, and occasionally clicking on others images to start chats with one, a few, or all the team.
In the screenshot above you can see that the lower right user — this is the team that built Sqwiggle — has clicked to start a conversation. You can also see the right sidebar which has a more-or-less conventional text chat going on, with embedded image files.
I haven’t had a chance to try it out — I am getting a demo next week — but I find the premise of always being in a video chat sort of too much for me. After all, I don’t crave working in a giant open office with 20 other people, either. Also, the nature of my coworking with others is fairly disconnected, and so there is no obvious set of people I’d be part of like the tool is designed to support. On the other hand, I can imagine that others would be more focused on working with a small group on tightly defined work topics, like the guys at Sqwiggle.
[By the way, these guys are publishing some of their discussions about their challenges and observations on YouTube, like this one that discusses the loneliness of the remote worker, and the implications for their tool.]
The Bottom Line
A quick look at Sqwiggle and Slack show wide variation of intentions even when the developers are thinking about supporting users in real time communication. Ranging from constant shared awareness — or Hobbesian surveillance — and video chat style of conversation in Sqwiggle to the more text- and search-focused, information-heavy treatment of real time in Slack, it’s clear that in even what may be considered a niche area, there is an infinity of angles to take in social tools.
Perhaps more critical is this takeaway: in a world where we can finally remain connected to others all the time, no matter where we are and no matter what we are up to, how can we exploit the opportunity for always on connection and reduce the inherent friction (and creepiness?) involved so that it’s an essential tool for productivity and not just a nice-to-have. As we start to get close to that ideal, real time communication will be built into every social tool, I bet.