In 2002, my mom started a new job in finance. One day, I visited her office. As part of the grand tour, she showed me her Lotus Notes setup on her PC, and explained that she received around 400 emails a day. This baffled my eleven year old mind: “why don’t you guys just use MSN?” My friends at school used Microsoft’s Messenger for everything. Some of my friends in the US had me hopping on AOL, but either one seemed obviously better than my mom and her highly-paid colleagues shooting one-line emails through their bulky setups. Nearly twenty years later, Slack and Microsoft Teams are finally making real-time chat commonplace even among the most traditional enterprises.
In the early 2000s, I was deep in MMO gaming (specifically RuneScape). I joined and led clans of hundreds of other players, sometimes in PVP, but most often just to make money. For us kids, these were remarkably successful group efforts: large groups of teenage strangers around the world organized themselves, mostly over text chat, to work together for hours every day. I still know my major timezone overlaps off by heart from back then. We used phpBB forums for longer-form discussion and official matters, and set up internal Wikis for knowledge management. We used IRC to chat in real-time, and set up dozens of custom scripts to integrate with external services. If we needed audio to chat in real-time, we’d use Ventrilo, which would support up to 400 people simultaneously. For sharing short screen recordings, we used Gyazo and Puush, a decade before Loom was founded.
As such, the past few months of COVID quarantine have been a real throwback for me. As a teen, I sat at my desk for fourteen hours a day, coordinating buyouts of ingame items, playing on one screen, watching IRC and forums on the other, while chatting over Ventrilo.1 Now, as an adult, I am doing the same, just with real work, Slack, and Zoom instead.2
The rest of the world has been adjusting to this new normal, and venture/tech Twitter (mostly people who were not obsessive online-gaming teens in the early 2000s) has been abuzz with theories about what collaboration in this new world looks like. To me, it looks a great deal like the toolset I used to very competitively3 play online games. Some tools, like Notion, GitHub, and Roam Research are genuinely unprecedented in that they have no prior product analogies, but for the most part, you can predict the 2020 remote work toolkit by looking at the 2010 gaming toolkit.
It’s unsurprising that there would be a strong correspondence between online gaming and work tools. Both are collaborative team efforts, and require low-latency communication over text, audio, and video. Both make use of complex external services to manage recruiting, onboarding, collective knowledge, and to solve complicated coordination problems over multiple timezones for dozens, if not hundreds of teammates.
Let’s look ahead. What does gaming in 2020 tell us about collaborative work in the future?
Twitch is a livestreaming/social platform, most popular for video games. Streamers on Twitch have slowly expanded to now include real-life vlogging, teaching, live coding, painting, writing, and other non-gaming genres. What’s most interesting is that streamers are starting to use Twitch to share their creative efforts as they build: some people are now even building businesses, all in public, on Twitch.
I believe this style of content production and engagement is going to shift how work is done in a few years. Most employees will be streaming as they work, and their colleagues may drop in on their streams with ideas and suggestions. It’ll feel weirdly invasive at first. There’s certainly a hump to get over when live-streaming your thoughts and showing your intimate, unfinished work-product drafts. However, once people get used to it, it’s collaboration supercharged. You’ll work, take a break, peruse your coworkers’ streams, find something interesting, drop in, chat for five minutes, share context, and get back to your own stuff. The feedback loop of creation becomes much tighter.
Video as Institutional Knowledge
Closely related to Twitch is YouTube – after you’ve done a stream, you’ll upload a copy for posterity. This solves a problem in how companies deal with the loss of institutional knowledge – namely, how to do stuff – as they grow. As people leave, so do all the little procedures and processes that glue together a large operational organization. All companies try to remedy this through written knowledge bases, and the vast majority fail. Screen recordings of how employees work can be powerful stores of institutional knowledge.4
Face-to-face communications for routine meetings are going away. I’m in a lot of Zoom meetings these days, and I don’t want to stare at another person’s face, and try to read their expressions. It wears me out. I don’t want to carefully adjust my background to look presentable. Most people I know who are on 3+ calls a day will subtly push toward audio-only. New users may start off excited about video meetings and seeing other people’s faces, but as they become power users, video becomes too taxing and they move toward audio only. Outside of important/first-time external meetings, power users and well-acquainted teammates don’t want all the baggage of video calls, they want TeamSpeak.
As far as meetings go, the current big open problem is that it is extremely difficult to replicate the experience of meeting as a group, splintering into smaller conversations, and hopping from conversation to conversation, the way you might at a professional event (or a party in Silicon Valley; the two are identical). Ventrilo solved this problem over a decade ago:5 create ephemeral channels/groups within your VoIP server that people can join, and that close when they have no members. Supporting this is the next big step for Zoom. If they fall short, they very seriously open up the market for any other entrant that can facilitate this.
For all the talk about shifting paradigms under remote work, there’s been little talk of AR/VR collaborative solutions. There are tons of vendors! But they’re all uncanny-valley experiences that very imperfectly try to replicate the experience of face-to-face meetings, or (even worse) conferences. All of these collaborate-in-VR solutions feel awkwardly skeuomorphic, and I expect that nothing will come of them.
Why? Because, just like in the above point, face-to-face comms are an artifact, not a goal. The goals are always to exchange information, build trust, and to make decisions. Strapping into an Oculus Rift to sit in a virtual meeting room with a bunch of Lara Croft lookalikes doesn’t advance the goal, it only distracts. Even a perfect VR experience would only distract.
Going out on a limb, I expect that if users do end up going for 3D interaction, it’s going to look a lot more like a blend of traditional MMORPGs and Mozilla Hubs than anything requiring an AR or VR device.
If Discord starts marketing itself for a more professional crowd, it will destroy Slack. It’s a far superior software product – lighter-weight, faster, and it natively supports audio and video chat inside the platform. Discord is a $10B+ company in the making. Perhaps controversially, I think if users adapt to audio being more important than video, Discord is a serious competitor to Zoom.
All good gaming-adjacent software is light and fast. Bulky software would slow down your computer and you’d lose in games! Similarly, we’re enduring an epidemic of slow enterprise software. Asana, JIRA, Confluence, Slack, Google Drive, and so forth: using any of these tools is like wading through molasses. There’s lag when you enter keystrokes, interfaces load slowly due to hundreds of API calls under the hood, and so on.
I desperately hope that as SaaS providers try harder to provide mind-melding interfaces between man and machine, they’ll eventually realize that a lack of speed is the biggest barrier between the two; that the speed of response and navigation is the single most important feature to a serious user.
Right now, we are in a strange period of adjustment as people learn to work remotely. Users cling to representations of real life, meetings, and face-to-face Zooms. But this is an inconvenience, and it’ll become more rare for routine work. Audio is king in the remote world work; video – of actual humans – is less relevant, simulacrum of a past paradigm. On the other hand, video of work is of paramount importance, and the combination of live streaming and video storage will reshape how employees work, collaborate, and share institutional knowledge.
In this world, AR and VR are somewhat counter-intuitive losers, only useful in very niche applications. If people collaborate in some kinds of 3D spaces, it’ll be mostly for rapid prototyping, sketching, etc. It is clear that collaborative, multi-user, version-controlled/historied software will succeed in this paradigm; I expect more products like Figma and Google Docs to arrive, and single-user software like PhotoShop to quietly leave the scene. And I pray that this new, glorious software will be fast.
The fact that Clubhouse basically put a superior product/marketing skin over Ventrilo-style VoIP, put it on mobile, and then stuck a $100M price tag on it, blew my mind. ↩
You might laugh at the notion of a competitive RuneScape player, but it ended up paying my way through college. A story for another time. ↩
For example, think about how, for virtually all but the largest companies, the instructions for setting up a new developer environment are almost always flawed or out of date. Following a screen recording of the most recent employee to get onboarded would be a much more reliable source to draw on. ↩
Mumble solved it in a different way: for online 3D spaces, like in FPS games, not only can you break up into channels, etc. but the loudness of your voice, as heard by another player, is proportionate to your distance from them. Insofar as supporting the skeuomorphic VR experience goes, this might be a clean way to make it feel more organic. ↩