During the first of the JCSU New Faculty Development Summer Institutes , funded by a generous grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, one of the participants made a request in a conversations about what we wanted to see in the future. They wanted the digital equivalent of a coffee house — a place where they could meet with colleagues, have informal conversations with students, and remain connected. At first blush, there appears to be a few options available for such a thing: Slack and various Google products can provide institutional conversation spaces. Facebook and Twitter, as social networks, provide social spaces for interaction. Messages and SMS allow for direct, instant communication.
None of these, however, fits the bill.
I would argue the primary reason that all of these services are failing in this sphere is not due to their feature sets, which are all robust, or their ubiquity. Instead, I would focus on two things that are preventing them from achieving this desirable goal.
The first is a legacy assumption. With the exception of Messages, SMS, and similar direct messaging services, these apps have an interface that assumes you are sitting at a desk. Yes, they have been adapted to smaller screens, but they are not mobile first designs. The paradigm is one of working on a task and receiving a stream of contact in a separate window. This framework is different from the metaphorical space around the water cooler or coffee machine in the break room. As such, it does not fulfill the need for the coffee shop space as described above.
Lurking behind this paradigm, however, is a more powerful one that will prevent these apps from ever serving the function of a coffee house — a paradigm most clearly seen in the Mute feature. Now, I am not saying that the Mute feature is a bad idea. Sometimes, you need to close your office door to signal to your colleagues that you need to get something done and that now is a bad time for them to stick their head in the door and ask a question or chat about last night’s game. In addition, social networks need the ability to mute the more toxic voices of the internet. But the fact that those toxic voices are more prevalent online than they are offline is a signal that there is something critically different about the virtual spaces these apps create.
Muting signals that these apps are built based on a consumption paradigm — not a conversational one. It’s the kind of thing you do to a television program rather than an interlocutor.
All of these apps are imagined in terms of consumption — not conversation. So long as that remains the case, they will not break through into a space where true conversation, rather than two or more people consuming communication from each other (much as you are consuming this blog post but are able to respond to it). They will not break through a hard ceiling of their utility and operate in the same conversational manner that messaging apps do.
In pointing this out, I want to stress that this is something users should be as aware of as developers. If we are using these virtual spaces in a manner they are not designed for, we should not be surprised at their limitations. Developers, meanwhile, should note that their apps and services may not be offering what their users are truly looking for.