Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Skam, revisited

In making this post last Friday, I'm getting the impression that I may have left myself open to misinterpretation, so here's an attempt to clarify. In relating my Massively Multi-user Skype Chat experience, I wasn't trying to besmirch the good name of Stuart, in any way, as I thought I made clear at the time. So to defuse the situation, let's take Stuart out and replace him with the fictional Mr. X. He's a Skype contact of mine, though I don't know him well, and I think we know some people in common. Other than this change of cast, let's keep all the other facts the same. The conclusion of my post was that I didn't feel there was an adequate mechanism for protecting myself from inclusion in such Mass Chats, but I didn't explain why clearly enough.

Obviously, I could tweak my privacy settings to shield me from all but those who know me, and I thought this would have been taken as a given in my original post. Anyone who wishes to establish contact must then seek authorization. Fine, but what if I use Skype precisely because I want to meet new contacts and friends? Moreover, what if I'm that small hotel in Switzerland, Jakarta, or any of the other businesses I've uncovered which apparently use Skype and want to maintain a visible, contactable presence? Keeping myself “safe” might cheapen the experience of Skype for me, and it still doesn’t solve some of my potential problems.

  • Contextual presence – There may be times when I am happy to be drawn into a Mass Chat initiated by a contact, but there may be other times when it is intrusive. I currently have no control over this. Even if my presence indicates “do not disturb,” I have no opt out before the fact. Recall that in this example I am offline at the time, but end up being involved in it eight hours later, as the whole Mass Chat is cached in Mr. X’s client until we are both online again. “Lighten up,” I can hear you say. “My friends include me in a visible way on silly group emails all the time, and this is no different.” Actually, I can choose when, if ever, to open those emails, and also when, if ever, to open “reply to all” emails from the other people on the group list, in my own good time. What I want is something which allows me to set clearer rules. If I am displaying “do not disturb” and Stuart initiates a chat, interrupt me, if it’s Mr. X, defer. I’m sure this is in the works, but we’re not there yet, and if 49 other people are involved, my annoyance level may skyrocket if I am busy. I can always just exit, or shut Skype down until I am no longer busy, but the latter choice may be counterproductive if I am both busy and urgently awaiting contact from one specific person.
  • Reputation – I know that Stuart has interesting friends and contacts, so I’m not worried, but in the case of Mr. X, I have to hope that his inclusion of his friends (some I may know/like, others not) will not bore me, offend me, or be indiscrete (spare a thought for the poor friends of Paris Hilton). Moreover, in principle I’m not sure I’m happy to have my identity exposed to people I don’t know. (It occurs to me that Skype might be able to charge for an “ex-directory” service for those who really want to be selective, but that doesn’t apply to me [before I am labelled an unsociable curmudgeon]). What would be nice is the ability to say, “If Mr. X initiates a Mass Chat which contains people not in my contacts list, exclude me.” Or perhaps, “Include me only if all the participants share at least one common contact with me,” or maybe something fuzzier like a probability ranking based on past contacts (maybe something akin to LOAF).

This is a complicated wish list, I know, and I’m not complaining. How annoyed can I be with something free that works as well as Skype does? My underlying point was that I was concerned that some of the communications functionality of Skype may be progressing faster than the users’ control mechanisms. As long as everyone plays responsibly, no one gets hurt, but we know this is not a reasonable expectation in the real world. Despite whatever impressions I may have given to the contrary, I’m actually laid back about these sorts of things (life is too short, and I have a day job to think about), but not everyone will be, and I was merely trying to ponder what happens if users begin to perceive Skype as another source of intrusion and annoyance, rather than as the liberating experience it can/should be.

UPDATE: I now see that Stuart has, as usual, some very interesting thoughts on this issue, well worth a read.

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