25 March 2020
A bit over a week ago, I made a small tool - or toy, depending on your perspective, or the time of day - called VOIPcards. I demonstrated it on my public Twitter account:
I made some flashcards for you to hold up on videochat:https://t.co/tSPIEWqGWu— Tom Armitage (@tom_armitage) March 17, 2020
You can install to your phone's homescreen, and it should work offline.
Ideal for when you want to comment, but stay quiet - or perhaps tell someone else to pipe down for a bit. pic.twitter.com/6525w9wbNY
It was made after my friend Alice showed pictures of her backwards post-it notes she’d hold up to her videoconference. I thought about making a tool for having on-demand backwards flashcards for video calls. A small toy to make, and thus, some time to practice some modern development practices, make a PWA and put myself to making something during Interesting Times.
Since then, a lot of people have liked it, or shared it, or been generally enthusiastic. Several have submitted patches and, most notably, translations, to it. And I’ve added some new features: white on black text, choice of skin-tone for emojis, and settings that persist between sessions.
I’m not sure it’s any good, though.
I don’t think it’s bad, though, and if it’s making a difference to your remote practice, that’s great. But I don’t think it’s the right tool for what it sets out to do.
And here’s the thing: it wasn’t meant to be. In some ways, the point of VOIPcards is as much a provocation as it is a thing for you to use. It says: here are things people sometimes need to say. Here are things people sometimes need to do, to support colleagues on a call. Here are things people need to do because it’s fun.
This is why I think of it as between a tool and a toy: it’s fun to use for a bit, it’s a provocation as to the kind of things we need alongside streaming video, and if you put it down when you’re bored (and your behaviour may have changed) that is fine.
The single most important card in the deck is a tie between “You have been talking a long time” and “Someone else would like to speak”. These are useful and important statements to make in face-to-face meetings, but they’re doubly important when there’s twelve of you on a Zoom call. Sometimes, the person with better video quality noticing that someone wants to speak, and amplifying that demand, is good.
If what you come away from VOIPcards with is not a tool to use, but a better way of thinking about your communication processes, that’s probably more important than using a fun app.
But: equally, if you do find it useful, this isn’t a slight. That’s great! I’m glad it works for you.
I think the reason it’s popular is that people respond to the idea of it. The idea of the product has immediate appeal - perhaps more so than the reality of it. And that appeal is so immediate, so instant, that it makes me distrust it. Good ideas don’t just land instantly: they stand up to scrutiny. I’m really not sure VOIPcards does. At the same time, there’s value in the idea because of what it makes people think, how it makes them subsequently behave. And I think some of that value really does come down to it being real. A product you can try, fiddle with, demonstrate, lands stronger than a back-of-a-napkin idea - even if it turns out to be not much more than the idea.
Another obvious smell for me is that I don’t use the product. I enjoyed making it, and I was definitely thinking about other peoples’s needs - however imaginary - when making it. But it’s not for me, which makes it hard to make sensible decisions about it.
(What do I do instead? Largely, hand gestures and big facial expressions: putting a hand up to speak, holding a palm up to apologise for speaking over someone, lots of thumbs-ups. It puts me in mind of the way Daniel Franck and Ty Abraham describe the way the “Belters” - first-generation space dwellers - communicate in their Expanse novels. Belters talk with lots of broad hand-and-body gestures, rather than facial ones, because the culture developed communication techniques that worked whilst wearing a spacesuit. No-one can see an eyeroll through a visor, but everyone can see theatrical shrugs, sweeping hand gestures. I liked that. It feels like we’re all Belters on voice chat. Sublety goes out the window and instead, a big hand giving a thumbs-up into a camera is a nice way to indicate assent without cutting into somebody’s audio)
When I’m being most negative about VOIPcards, it is because they feel like solutionising - inventing a solution for a hypothetical problem. In this case, though, the problem is definitely something everybody has felt at some point. But this solution is perhaps too immediate, came too much from the “implementation” end of the brain to be the robust, appropriate answer to said problem.
There’s a lot of solutionising around right now, and I’m largely wary of it all. The right skills at the moment are not always leaping to solutions, working out what you can offer others, guessing at what might happen, what you might expect, and how you can respond to that. I think that the right skills to have - and the right tone to strike right now - are to be responsive, and resilient. Dealing with the unexpected, the unknown unknowns. Not solving the problems you can easily imagine, but getting ready to solve the ones you can’t.
Still: there is also value in making things to make other people think, rather than do. The win isn’t necessarily the product, but the behaviour it inspires. If what people take away from the cards is some time spent thinking more carefully about their communications, rather than yet another tool to use: that’s a win for me.
(You can try VOIPcards here. It works best on a mobile phone, and you can install it to your homescreen as an app.)