From a Whisper to a Scream

In which I discuss the importance of intent to communication tools and annoy the people around me with a story about a dishwasher.

One of the things that make modern air travel such a joy is the way we have to pretend to ignore the deeply personal, intimate conversations being shouted into cell phones around us. Sure, there are no state secrets being revealed but – and I mean this from the heart – I don’t care that you got a new dishwasher.

If I was to ask one of those shouters who they were talking to, they’d probably say, “my friend“, “my sister”, or whoever it was on the other end of the phone. They probably wouldn’t say that they were talking to me or the rest of the people here in the airport. But they are. I could hear them just fine, probably more clearly than their friend, despite the fact that they hadn’t even noticed that I was there. They don’t mean to be rude, don’t mean to shout their every thought to the whole world, and probably don’t even realize that they’re doing it.

I do this too, of course, and you probably do, too. The problem isn’t just that we’re stupid (although that’s usually a safe guess), it’s the tool. The way the phone works – even when I’m using it properly – leads me to shout when I thought I was whispering. I make my conversations public without even realizing. I get caught up in the conversation and forget who can hear what I say. By the time I notice, it’s too late.

This same thing happens on Facebook, my blog, and anywhere else I’m posting. When I write a jokey response to someone’s post, I’m just thinking of them and often forget that they’re not the only one who’s going to see it. But I’m just talking to my friend, right. That was my intent. I didn’t mean to shout.

How many times have you posted something and seen a reply that made you think, “wow, I forgot I was even connected to that person“? My freshman roommate, people I haven’t seen since grade school in the 70s, parents of my kids’ friends, and my wife’s deeply religious aunts will all see every stupid YouTube fart joke I post on Facebook.

This is a problem. The tools should recognize who I’m trying to talk to, and let me limit this message to just them. The tool should care about my intent.

Offline, I don’t tell every single thing to every single person. I know who I’m talking to and tailor what I say accordingly. I tell my friends different things than my co-workers, and I tell little to strangers. Online there is usually one big context: Everyone. Tools like Facebook let me mark people as “friends“, but that term has been stretched so far that it’s become meaningless. I need a way to manage the context in which I’m heard. These people are really my friends, that bunch are people I used to know and “friended” to be polite, those are family, these others are co-workers.

In short: My OPS guys don’t care about my dishwasher, my grade school friends don’t care that the servers are up, and the fewer fart jokes that make it onto the screens of my wife’s aunts, the happier we’ll all be.

The tools often let me create lists of people, but they don’t let me use them in the way I want. When I post something, I should have the option of saying, “only show it to these people”. I want to be able to set up my lists once, and use them in all of my tools.

What do you think? Am I the only one who thinks this is a problem worth solving? Leave me a comment.

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