Video killed the radio star

One of the personal experiments I'm considering in 2015 is a conscious movement away from video-based participation in open source communities. There are a number of reasons, but the main one is that I have found the preference for "realtime," video-based communication media inevitably leads to ever narrowing circles of interaction, and eventually, exclusion.

I'll speak about Mozilla, since that's the community I know best, but I suspect a version of this is happening in other places as well. At some point in the past few years, Mozilla (the company) introduced a video conferencing system called Vidyo. It's pretty amazing. Vidyo makes it trivial to setup a virtual meeting with many people simultaneously or do a 1:1 call with just one person. I've spent hundreds of hours on Vidyo calls with Mozilla, and other than the usual complaints one could level against meetings in general, I've found them very productive and useful, especially being able to see and hear colleagues on the other side of the country or planet.

Vidyo is so effective that for many parts of the project, it has become the default way people interact. If I need to talk to you about a piece of code, for example, it would be faster if we both just hopped into Vidyo and spent 10 minutes hashing things out. And so we do. I'm guilty of this.

I'm talking about Vidyo above, but substitute Skype or Google Hangouts or or some cool WebRTC thing your friend is building on Github. Video conferencing isn't a negative technology, and provides some incredible benefits. I believe it's part of what allows Mozilla to be such a successful remote-friendly workplace (vs. project). I don't believe, however, that it strengthens open source communities in the same way.

It's possible on Vidyo to send an invitation URL to someone without an account (you need an account to use it, by the way). You have to be invited, though. Unlike irc, for example, there is no potential for lurking (I spent years learning about Mozilla code by lurking on irc in #developers). You're in or you're out, and people need to decide which it will be. Some people work around this by recording the calls and posting them online. The difficulty here is that doing so converts what was participation into performance--one can watch what happened, but not engage it, not join the conversation and therefore the decision making. And the more we use video, the more likely we are to have that be where we make decisions, further making it difficult for those not in the meeting to be part of the discussion.

Even knowing that decisions have been made becomes difficult in a world where those decisions aren't sticky, and go un-indexed. If we decided in a mailing list, bug, irc discussion, Github issue, etc. we could at least hope to go back and search for it. So too could interested members of the community, who may wish to follow along with what's happening, or look back later when the details around how the decision came to be become important.

I'll go further and suggest that in global, open projects, the idea that we can schedule a "call" with interested and affected parties is necessarily flawed. There is no time we can pick that has us all, in all timezones, able to participate. We shouldn't fool ourselves: such a communication paradigm is necessarily geographically rooted; it includes people here, even though it gives the impression that everyone and anyone could be here. They aren't. They can't be. The internet has already solved this problem by privileging asynchronous communication. Video is synchronous.

Not everything can or should be open and public. I've found that certain types of communication work really well over video, and we get into problems when we do too much over email, mailing lists, or bugs. For example, a conversation with a person that requires some degree of personal nuance. We waste a lot of time, and cause unnecessary hurt, when we always choose open, asynchronous, public communication media. Often scheduling an in person meeting, getting on the phone, or using video chat would allow us to break through a difficult impasse with another person.

But when all we're doing is meeting as a group to discuss something public, I think it's worth asking the question: why aren't we engaging in a more open way? Why aren't we making it possible for new and unexpected people to observe, join, and challenge us? It turns out it's a lot easier and faster to make decisions in a small group of people you've pre-chosen and invited; but we should consider what we give up in the name of efficiency, especially in terms of diversity and the possibility of community engagement.

When I first started bringing students into open source communities like Mozilla, I liked to tell them that what we were doing would be impossible with other large products and companies. Imagine showing up at the offices of Corp X and asking to be allowed to sit quietly in the back of the conference room while the engineers all met. Being able to take them right into the heart of a global project, uninvited, and armed only with a web browser, was a powerful statement; it says: "You don't need permission to be one of us."

I don't think that's as true as it used to be. You do need permission to be involved with video-only communities, where you literally have to be invited before taking part. Where most companies need to guard against leaks and breaches of many kinds, an open project/company needs to regularly audit to ensure that its process is porous enough for new things to get in from the outside, and for those on the inside to regularly encounter the public.

I don't know what the right balance is exactly, and as with most aspects of my life where I become unbalanced, the solution is to try swinging back in the other direction until I can find equilibrium. In 2015 I'm going to prefer modes of participation in Mozilla that aren't video-based. Maybe it will mean that those who want to work with me will be encouraged to consider doing the same, or maybe it will mean that I increasingly find myself on the outside. Knowing what I do of Mozilla, and its expressed commitment to working open, I'm hopeful that it will be the former. We'll see.

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