Spam everyone and use your filters

For over two years now, polypoly is working as a remote-only company. Most of the time, this works well, but there are of course wrinkles and roadblocks. The major one is in how and where we communicate.

We have all the tools: Email, Chat, a wiki, a ticket system, a CRM-system, a design system, and so on.

And still, during our first in-person company offsite, a common concern was „I don’t know what X does, nor how they work.“. This was voiced across all levels, from trainee to C‑Level.

An investigation ensues

That is because we don’t get a chance to observe others communicating or working. I peeked at the statistics of the messaging service we use to talk to each other, and it showed that 84% of all communication happens behind the virtual equivalent of closed doors! That may be not all of it, but it surely feels that way. Most of our chats are ad-hoc groups of three to four people, and these chats are closed and invisible to everyone else.

This is the equivalent of everyone having a private closed office and private corridors to visit the other offices. Yes, quite like in the dystopian TV show Severance.

We do have watercooler talk, but it is limited to the already-established small groups, not random encounters when fetching coffee.

I spent a whole day of our offsite workshopping this, talking to colleagues all across the company about this issue. The people who complained the most about the missing information are also those who fear of being inundated with information, and of course do not want to spam others. In the end, I realised that a key reason for this is that our social tools aren’t very social, and that fact forms the wrong expectations:

  • There is the expectation that there is the perfectly fitting tool for every context, and that if everyone would only use them in the right way, everything would be fine.
  • The other expectation is that the onus is on the creators and senders of information to figure out who needs what and then to make sure that these people see it.

My take

I whole-heartedly disagree with both of these expectations. People use the tools they are comfortable with, and in the way that fulfils their needs the quickest. So they will always make mistakes, put things into the wrong wiki page, or use a superfluous label. One can minimize this, but never get it perfect.

And once your company passes a certain size threshold, probably at around five people already, no one can have perfect knowledge of who needs to know what.

(That does not meant that you wouldn’t need working conventions within a certain team or domain. Of course it is important that the documentation of your backup for example is set in a way that it is structured, and at a known location. I am talking about cross-domain conversations here.)

What is needed for these tools is to make information discoverable to people outside your immediate team, and to facilitate serendipitous connections.

So what do I propose? Three steps, ideally all taken together:

  1. Communicate a guideline of what kind of information should generally live in which system. Tasks go to the ticket system, documentation and asynchronous discussions in long form to the wiki, and everything that involves short-form and/or live communication goes to the messaging platform. A corollary is to establish an etiquette on what tagging someone in a message means. For example, if I add someone to the “To” field of an email, this contains information they need to know and to act on. If they are in the ““CC” field, I just want them to be aware of the conversation.
  2. Encourage everyone to communicate as much in the open as possible. Make people not be afraid to use a channel, contact a person, or edit or comment on a wikipage. Allow questions everywhere. People should feel comfortable to ask if someone can use feedback on something. Everyone should feel free to make noise and be observeable.
  3. Teach everyone rigorously about filters. They need to understand how to effectively condense the noise into the background, but have the important signals stand out.

That last bit is crucial. It shifts the responsibility of managing the information flow away from the sender, to the receiver. This is because as a sender, I cannot ever reliably know the potential receivers state of mind, their load, their interests, and so on. Heck, often enough, people do not even reliably know who the potential receivers should be in the first place.

So the only chance we have is to communicate in the open, using keywords and making sure that bystanders have a chance of discovering whatever I send.

Managing the information firehose

The result is that any given person will have a potential firehose of information coming towards them. Lots of chat channels with an unread messages icon, full email-folders, a Wiki timeline that is chock-full of entries.

And that is fine. It means that one can get a sense of where the action is. You can see in which area of the virtual office everyone is congregating, where a lot of discussion is happening.

But it also means that one needs to learn to let go. Not every message needs to be read. Not everything needs to be commented. And even when people CC you, they probably just want you to be aware of something that is happening, nothing more.

So, figuring out how to make the important signals float to the top is important:

  • set up email filters that for example move all of the system messages that you don’t need to read all the time go away into a subfolder. Those ticket-system updates that someone logged work on something? If that isn’t something actionable for you, make them disappear.
  • On the other hand, ensure that things with words like “task assigned to you” or keywords relevant to your job get a highlight and stay in the queue you actively monitor and work on.

Setting up those filters and tweaking the notification settings is time very well spent, and everyone should be familiar with those settings. When choosing a new tool for your team, choose the one that has a better way to adjust these settings. And when you onboard a new team member, spend some extra time on showing them how to set up their own filters.

As an aside: In over 20 years of working in IT, I have never missed a message or notification because it got drowned out in useless noise. And I was nearly always one of the persons who had to be at least low-key aware of everything that is going on. The first thing I do for every new communication tool I get, is to figure out how to tweak the notifications.

In a former job, there were a few magic words that would summon me to any conversation happening on the company slack. I didn’t advertise those words, but when someone would use the word “tracking link” in any of the Slack channels I had access to, I’d be notified — because I knew that in 9 times out of 10, this was a problem I needed to know about.

Thankfully, I also knew that I could otherwise safely ignore these channels, as they would be talking about things entirely irrelevant to my job. But knowing that a conversation happened there, and how much, would help me gauge how much business is flowing through that part of the company. Kind of like the restaurant owner who can see the stack of order slips grow during the evening, knowing how well his business is doing at a glance.

Not everyone in a company needs to keep track of everything. Generally, the further down the ladder one finds oneself, the less sources of information one needs to watch. But in the other way around, the broader your responsibilities, the more interconnected you are in the work, the more you need to be able to gather a good view of what is happening.

This is not a call for having very precise summaries and statistics on all fields all the time (although there is use for that). This is about the feel of communication, and feelings are, by their nature as messy as us humans involved in it. One cannot expect a whole company to always communicate precisely and only to the exactly right persons. So it is important to factor in these imperfections.

Make asynchronous communication and work easier

The other reason to foster such a culture is because it makes asynchronous communication and work a lot easier: If I do not need to worry about whether my information comes at a convenient time and in a convenient channel, then I can do this a lot more efficiently from my end. But I can only do so, when I can rely on the receivers to actually not be inconvenienced by my actions. And that risk is significantly lowered when everyone has good filters.

So, go ahead: Spam everyone, but use your filters!

Forum vs Community

Ausgelöst von einem seit längerer Zeit latent schwelendem Konflikt in der deutschsprachigen Online-Rollenspielszene kamen mir neulich einige Gedanken zu der Frage, was denn eigentlich eine „Online Community“ ausmacht, wo sich solche einfinden, und was unterschiedliche Erwartungshaltungen da anrichten können.

Halten wir einmal ein paar Begriffe und Überlegungen fest:

  • wenn Menschen das gleiche Hobby verfolgen, suchen sie gerne den Austausch zu anderen mit dem gleichen Hobby
  • Damit sind sie aber noch lange keine „Gemeinschaft“. Nicht alle Skatspieler sind dickste Freunde.
  • eine „Gemeinschaft“ ist eine Gruppe Menschen, die sich grundsätzlich gut versteht, einen gemeinsamen Umgangston gefunden hat, und gerne Kontakt zueinander hat.
  • Es gibt Social Media Plattformen, „Communities“ auf diesen Plattformen, Gruppen und Foren.
    • eine Plattform ist ein Stück Onlinesoftware, dass es Menschen erlaubt, miteinander in Kontakt zu treten. Man kann allerdings auch explizit den Kontakt zu bestimmten Menschen meiden
    • eine Community auf so einer Plattform erlaubt es, Menschen dieser Plattform zu einem bestimmten Thema oder Zweck zu verbinden. Die Community dient hier als Austausch- und Anknüpfungspunkt
    • eine Gruppe ist meistens einfach nur eine eher kleine Community
    • ein Forum ist eine eigenständige Plattform, die in sich eine Community abbildet.

Foren sind damit eine spannende Sonderkonstruktion: Man kann nicht aktiv der Plattform beitreten ohne nicht gleichzeitig auch Mitglied der dortigen Community zu werden. Dadurch, wie Foren die Übersicht über neue Beiträge präsentieren, wird es zum Beispiel in der Regel bewusst einfach gemacht, immer alle Bereiche des Forums wahrzunehmen.

Die Funktion „Zeige Ungelesenes“, die immer die neuen Beiträge zu einem Thema in den Vordergrund rückt, sorgt dabei dafür, dass Aufmerksamkeit auf viel diskutierte Dinge gelenkt wird. Als Thema X vor zwei Wochen aufkam, habe ich mich vielleicht nicht dafür interessiert und es einfach weggeklickt. Wenn die Foren Software mir aber das Thema jeden Tag mehrmal wieder präsentiert und mir damit mitteilt, dass viele andere das Thema behandeln, dann werde ich doch mal neugierig. 

Das bedeutet aber auch, dass es schwierig wird, Bereiche oder Menschen bewusst auszublenden. Ein Forum „zwingt“ alle Teilnehmenden in eine „Gemeinschaft“.

Eine Plattform wie z.B. Facebook funktioniert da anders: Von vornherein wird hier akzeptiert, dass nicht alle mit allen kommunizieren wollen, und diese Filter sind häufig auch auf Gruppenebene noch funktional — man kann sich leichter abkapseln und andere ausblenden. Alternativ eben auch eigene Gruppen bilden. (Das ist dann auch das Problem: Facebook-Gruppen ab einer bestimmten Größe funktionieren häufig nicht mehr als Gemeinschaft, sondern nur noch als Ankündigungsmethode.)

Problematisch wird das ganze dann, wenn Menschen ein Forum wie eine Plattform benutzen wollen. „Lass mich doch mein Ding machen und ignorier mich“ ist ein Nutzungskonzept, dass von Menschen in einem typischen Internetforum sehr viel Selbstdisziplin und mentalen Aufwand erfordert — viel mehr als auf z.B. Facebook.

Lässt sich das auflösen?

Mein Instinkt ist, dass das nicht ohne grundlegende Änderung der dahinterstehenden Technik, bzw. der Benutzerführung geht. So oder so hilft es, wenn Menschen sich online tatsächlich bewusster damit beschäftigen und einigen, wie sie sich sehen: Als Gemeinschaft, lose Gruppe, Gruppe von Gemeinschaften oder etwas ganz anderes.

That incel nonsense…

At some point I will write a lengthy explanation why prohibiting private cars in inner cities will become an inevitability. All the green folks will rejoice over all the newfound clean air and all and will conveniently ignore that it was the dreaded fear of terror that finally brought this to us.

This is not that explanation, it’s about something else: „Incels“ — People, specifically men who blame their lack of romantic involvement, specifically the lack of sex, on women. And then maybe drive trucks into people.

Matthew Graybosch on Google+ put my general opinion of those into pretty clear words:

As such, I’m about to lay some harsh fucking truth on you: if you’re truly involuntarily celibate, you deserve it.

But that is only my general opinion. Because, as usual, I also have a more specific one:

Every cluster of teenage kids will have a few kids that sit on the sides, not truly belonging to the main group. That happens, it’s highly regrettable, but it just happens. And if the broader culture where these kids live in puts a high value on being sporty, good looking, attractive, the kids on the sides will be what we commonly refer to as „the nerds“

I was one of those as a kid. Not truly outcast, but a bit on the fringe. Enough so that when a former classmate was talking to her kid about bullying she decided to contact me to get some „inside info“, because after 30 years, I was still stuck in her head as „the (slightly) outside one“.

I also distinctly remember a time when puberty acne, being awkward and ‚the computer nerd‘ while also seeing the surfer guy getting the attraction from all the right girls, let me briefly believe I might end up that way.


In my own head.

Without having a word for it. Because, frankly, there was no 4chan or reddit or whatever where I could safely express that stupid idea and then end up in an echo chamber where I would reinforce that rough idea into a solid belief system.

Instead, after a few months of teenage angst and wallowing in private self-pity, I eventually worked up the courage and asked that girl I fancied out for a movie. A few weeks later, the concept of me staying a virgin forever involuntarily was thrown to the ash heap of history.

Enough confession time, what is the point I want to make here?

I think that „incels“ are truly a creation of the internet, combined with the toxic concept of maleness . Without having that place to mutually reassure themselves in that stupid concept, looking at what they see „how things should be“ in media, they wouldn’t be able to construct that bubble for themselves. And without that bubble they would have a chance to get happier.

Brotopia, which I’m currently reading, points the very same thing out, although in a different frame:

When minorities are forced to self-identify as minorities, their performance suffers. Sociologists even have a name for this: stereotype threat.

Incels“ are a very tragic example of a group of people that wished themselves into being a minority and then reaped all the negative effects that came with that.

The frightening thought is that a lot of those of us who nowadays look at them with scorn might have fallen into the same trap, if the tools of today would have been available to us.