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Friday, June 01, 2007

Trains, Twitter and MUDs

I worked for a company in Texas that got bought by a company in Virginia. We ended up with developers in both Dallas and Fairfax. Communication became a problem. Now, the underlying issue wasn't the geographical separation, but we didn't know that at the time and attempted a technological fix. We set up two computers, each with a webcam, microphone and speakers. We turned them on in the morning running Skype (which had excellent echo cancellation assuming you placed the speakers and microphone carefully) and Yahoo IM Video. And voila, we had a virtual window between the two offices.

Turns out the video wasn't all that useful. The camera was never pointed the right way, the viewing angle wasn't wide enough, the picture was low-res, and, most importantly, you had to be looking at it for it to do you any good.

The audio, on the other hand, was so effective it was eerie.

The Fairfax kiosk was set up in an empty cubicle among the developers. It was sensitive enough so that you could, without looking up from what you were typing, raise your voice and yell across to the other office. "Hey dude, you broke the build!" (pause) "No way, my check-in was clean, the log says it was you." And so forth.

There was a train track that ran behind the office building in Dallas. If the room in Virginia was quiet, you could hear the whistle as it passed over a crossing. I think that whistle was the most important part. It didn't really communicate anything important on the surface, but it provided an immediate, visceral connection from one office to another without taking up any particular amount of your conscious awareness. You just sort of felt connected when you heard that whistle.

That's what Twitter does for distributed collections of friends. It provides a sort of continual background feeling of connectedness, even if the surface messages are often trivial. Of course, scanning over Twitterrific takes some of your valuable attention, but if you've ever "lived in" a text-based MUD you'll understand how the act of reading can become unconscious. You just sort of "hear" the messages in the background instead of attending to them in the way you'd read a blog posting or even an IM.

Looking at Twitter from the outside, I can see how it seems strange to care about the minutia of other people's lives. But it's exactly the stuff you'd get if you worked in the same office with those people. The constant background hum of all sorts of information, from who's pregnant to who's on a business trip to Portland to who's broken the build. Twitter sort of turns your life into a text-based MUD. I'm not sure if that's an entirely good thing, but if you've made the decision to have a geographically distributed set of friends, it seems like a very practical solution.

You should follow me on twitter here.


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