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Greg Elliott and Hugo van Vuuren are giving a Berkman talk on “The Communication Crises and the Evolution of Personal and Cultural Protocols.” They are launching a new tool this week: (Ethan Zuckerman has posted his live blogging of this talk.)

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

They begin with a video that talks about the number of channels and messages in which we’re drowning. This is the communication crisis Greg and Hugo are addressing. They are interested in how we deal with the guilt of (Tina Roth Eisenberg) of not being able to keep up. We have various tools, such as email bankruptcy. They point to an XKCD Map of Online Communities that, among other things, reminds us that the Net is dwarfed by other forms of communication. A NY Times article (March 18, 2011) is about our culture’s movement away from telephone calls, even though you get more metadata; in many instances, a quick text is more appropriate.

The Internet is a Rorschach test, they say. We all play a puzzling game with our email, trying to filter it without missing anything and without hurting anyone’s feelings. E.g., danah boyd famously takes email sabbaticals, during which her auto-responder tells you that she will never read your msg. Other people (including Tim Berners-Lee) have detailed instructions about the netiquette for contacting him.

The site was influential on Greg and Hugo. It provides a link for your sig that announces that all your email responses will be five sentences or less. We used to have posters that instruct children in good manners. They’re not proposing that, of course. But, announcing norms shapes behavior.

They show their site: (Sign up here:, and give them time to hand-approve you.) Once you sign up, you create a profile that tells people your preferences in being contacted: Which channels, in which priority, and expectations. E.g., Use email; it may take me a while to get back to you and you don’t need to wrap it in social niceties; if necessary, call my phone, but don’t leave a message. (Here’s my profile.) This is even more useful, they say, if plugged into a community as a group protocol.

They are gathering data for research into how people rank their channels. (Anonymous, of course.) (Greg points to the data at the okCupid dating site.)

Q: What’s your business model?
A: This is a side project. We’re in it for the research.

Q: There’s a risk in making these rules too explicit. E.g., it says you respond in 24 hours, but you never want to respond to some particular person and they then get offended.
A: We encourage users to leave in as much ambiguity as they can. It’s up to you the user to define it.

Q: So much of the preferred channel is based on who the person is: If you’re my babysitter I want you to call, but if you’re my grad student, use email. How are those directions indicated?
A: We can imagine the site presenting different protocols depending on who you are: Are you a stranger, are you a friend? For now, Protocol is aimed at strangers since your friends probably already know how to reach you.

Q: How many users do you need for research purposes, and how are you going to get them?
A: We have 500-600 already. A big sample would be thousands. The next step is the location setting, and embedding into other services. We also want to reach people who are already using these sorts of rules.

Q: I love that you’re providing a tech solution, but are talking about the human problems. We are now past the era of flaming. Has your data shown if these protocols help prevent people from getting offended?
A: We don’t have the data yet.

Q: I’m a huge fan because it brings peace of mind. Each new channel fragments our identity. I love that Protocol centralizes our communicational identity no matter how our technology changes. Your suggesting that our communicational identity is our social identity. How is our identity crafted by our communication tools?
A: Yes, our identities are shaped by our tools. But I don’t know that Protocol is going to shape our identities or represent it. Some users do have very specific rules, which they use as a signal that they are very busy.

Q: You have a distinct individualistic bias. You think we’re going to pick our own tools and ways of communicating. You’re young and tech savvy. But I deal with the press, and they’re going to call my phone no matter what I say, because they have more power than I do. I wonder if asserting these protocols is a transitional moment. Maybe we’ll centralize on a new socially acceptable set of protocols, or are we going to fragment?
A: Communication media don’t generally replace predecessors. We’re not going to a singularity of communication preferences, but it will boil down to a smaller set. E.g., Rapportive (gmail extension) fetches info about the sender of any email msgs — their twitter account, etc.

Q: You said your motivation is relieve guilt. This seems like a geeky way to deal with the social anxieties that geeks tend to have.
A: In the future, we need systems to offer the protocols without you having to seek them out.

Q: There has to a brand of new psychologists dealing with these issues: When something is ambiguous, does it mean someone hates me, etc.?
A: Yes. Interesting.

Q: When you don’t know someone, I’d probably google them and find their primary-facing piece of info. How do you get Protocol to become that piece of info, especially when you’re talking about different ages, communities?
A: Embedding, for one thing.

Q: We have collapsed boundaries between channels. I want some people to self-declare what subjects they’re interested in. I’d rather tell people what I’m interested in rather than have them mine it and guess.
A: The word “reputation” hasn’t gone up yet. It used to matter more when we lived in small communities. Now we can invent ourselves many times. As the Net goes into its next phase, reputation and data will matter a great deal.

Q: Embedding is a nice idea. Get some sites to embed a cute logo. Second, you’re increasing the velocity, but velocity is the problem. There’s no barrier on the sender’s side to communication. Is anyone talking about putting actual costs on email. It should cost people to email me. That would slow the velocity.
A: We see Protocol as being the barrier eventually. The problem with money is that it discriminates invidiously. Also, it’d be nice if I could ping Protocol to see if my friend is available to talk, and it knows enough about our relationship and his circumstances. There’s no cost, but your msg may not get through.

Q: It used to be easy. Now you may not want to let people know why the time zone you’re in. You might want to have an abstraction layer that knows the zone you’re in and what the preferred order is in various zones.
A: There are many variables. The issue is that you get into complex, power-user

Q: [me] There will be an increasing need for metadata because the community of possible communicators has increased, with greatly differing local norms. So, how about creating a little marker that lists your preferred channels order, the way Creative Commons lets you easily represent your license preferences. Then let institutions encourage their users to put the marker on their web pages, etc.
A: We’re thinking that we’ll have three markers with varying degress of info.
Q: Well, one marker is easier to market than 3.

How about having two profiles, so you can give your friends the key?
A: You get into DRM issues. We’d rather encourage people to use Protocol for non-friends.

Q: How will you keep it up to date with new channels/services?
A: We hope that Protocol will be a part of the channel tools you use.

Q: Privacy used to be the right to be left alone. Now it’s about how much info is out there and how you can control it. You seem to adopt somewhat of a technological determinist standard; tech determines our social norms. Is that what you’re driving at?
A: We don’t think tech is the defining determinant of our lives, but it is there. We either let it run wild or set some rules.

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