Layered communications will change online communities

layered communicationsTime for a prediction: layered communications – a mixing of text, speech and video – will become a key issue for online communities in 2010 and beyond.

Two things this week got me thinking about the place for layered communications in online communities and social networks.

  1. Seth Godin’s post: Reinventing the Conference Call in which he suggested“[voice] conference calls should be accompanied by an online chat room”
  2. A podcast from SXSW: Strong Gaming Communities, text or speech.

Both of these look at the benefits of mixing a number of forms of communication. The mixing can be synchronous (i.e. at the same time) or asynchronous (one after the other). Either way, it highlights an interesting topic – how might people choose to communicate on social networks and online communities as the options for layered communications increase. And what additional benefits will it bring users and the owners of the networks?

Examples of layered communications

Layered commnications are a common phenomenon, here are a few examples:

  1. In Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) games, like World of Warcraft, players often use voice and text to co-ordinate battles. The podcast above will give you a better apreciation for this if you’ve never taken part in an MMO.
  2. TV News segments often mix video and the spoken word with text to reinforce points, as do TV adverts. That’s traditional media and arguably it’s simply part of the video, but I think text within a video alongside speech is really an example of layered comms, because your brain is interpreting two forms of communication at once.
  3. Whether you use Webex or YuuGuu (my favourite online meeting app) you’ve probably already sat through an online conference call where you watch a slide show whilst listening to a presenter and seeing them read and respond to questions posed using instant messaging and chat functionality. A great example of layered communication for which best-practice is still evolving rapidly.

Layered communitions in social networks and online communities

Social Media is all about conversations. Why should those conversations be limited to text in one place and video in another? Here are three trends to look out for in how communications in social networks might change five years from now. Some of this can already be seen today, much as William Gibson would say “the future is already here, it is just unevenly distributed”.

  1. Flicking from text to voice in social networks – Just as built in speakers helped online audio take hold. Increasing usage of headphones, built in microphones and VOIP will drive many more “click to speak” buttons. Some thoughts are better shared by voice and it will become common practice to flick between text chat and voice when communicating on social networks.
  2. Layered voice and text in research communities – Online communities are a fantastic way for companies to carry out research. At FreshNetworks we freqeuntly build private communities for research. It’s a good tool for companies trying to understand their customers. The success of research communities relies upon making the research process engaging for participants. We’ve used layered communications to do just that and expect to see much more of it in the future. For example, a Research Moderator may ask questions using a webcast or audio link (much more engaging than a wrtitten questionnaire) yet respondents will be asked to use instant messaging or chat functionality to respond.
  3. Video and voice in online communities – 2008 saw an increase in the number of sites that accept comments using video or voice as well as chat. It’s old hat for YouTube, but relatively new for blogs and rare on forums. I think online communities, especially those which have been built to engage members in story-telling and experieince sharing will start to see a much richer blend of layered communications in the future.

The key question is: What influences a user when deciding whether voice, video or text is more appropriate? and when will a synchronoous combination be the most useful thing for users?

Any ideas?