The Gmail Hoody: Breaking down offline communication dropoff

Posted on November 9, 2009. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , |

Spectrum of commitment in communication: It is a lot easier to observe than it is to lock eyes.  It is a lot easier to lock eyes than it is to smile.  It is a lot easier to smile than it is to wave.  It is a lot easier to wave than it is to say hi.

Note:  sorry in advance for the first paragraph below, but push through…you’ll see the point

Each step in the above spectrum requires an increased amount of commitment when interacting with a stranger.  The spectrum begins with a observation, which is a complete lack of communication.  There is minimal social risk to engaging in this behavior with a stranger, short of getting noticed.  If the average new yorker comes into physical proximity with 10,000 people in one day, they might engage in this level of interaction with up to 75% of them.  As you progress along the spectrum, to eye contact, the percentage declines significantly.  When our new yorker makes eye contact, they first take the plunge from an absence of communication into the world of non-verbal communication.  The significant event being a bidirectional interaction.  Even within eye contact exists a sub-spectrum defined by duration of connection…a staring contest is much greater commitment than an immediate aversion of the eyes upon contact).  From eye contact, the leap to smile is even more rare. It exposes the smiler to potential rejection, along with the wave, which is marked by an even greater commitment as it increases the likelihood that such rejection will be noticed by others.  Between a wave and the utterance of a word to a stranger exists a grand canyon of commitment, and therein lies the inefficiency of communication within a local environment.  Online retailers measure a customer’s commitment to them in terms of “drop off.”  If 100 people come to Amazon’s home page, only 50 click on a product, and only 25 reach the check out screen, and only 10 enter all of their credit card information and complete a transaction.  At each step some people “drop off.” Each step in the spectrum from observation to verbal communication represents a point of drop off as well.

While the volume (let’s say volume = richness x duration) of communication with strangers is extremely low in the physical world, it is growing, i’ll guess exponentially, in the digital world.  By reducing the commitment required to engage another person, largely due to reduction in the possibility of physical harm as an outcome, interaction with strangers is extremely common in an online environment (blog comments, craigslist sales, twitter interactions, etc…), yet extremely uncommon in an offline environment.  The downside of this disparity is that we are throwing away valuable non-verbal data that should be a leading indicator of richness of interaction.  Aside: If you wanted to get really heady, you could say that the goal of maximizing volume of communication is a furtherance of our species from an evolutionary standpoint in so far as increased communication equals increased rate or reproduction.

Let’s take the example of an uncrowded subway car from soho to park slope in brooklyn.


2 men in suits reading the WSJ

2 women with strollers

1 hipster with skinny jeans and a mustache

1 single girl listening to her ipod

If you had three separate rooms, and you were going to place 2 occupants of this car in each room with the goal of maximizing the volume of communication (as measured by richness and duration in the present as well as any future communication between occupants), who would you put in a room together?  Obviously, the two guys reading the WSJ are going together, the two moms are going together, and the two young singles are going together, right?  If we were in the online world, that’s how they would be paired: the two WSJ guys might interact in a forum on the WSJ website, the two moms may exchange parenting tips at, and the singles might flirt on Facebook

BUT, what the online environment does not account for, is that the girl listening to her ipod has been smiling at one of the guys reading the WSJ for 5 stops, and he is smiling back, and they are both carrying bags from TheStrand used bookstore (and they happen to be soul mates)…but what happens today?…the guy gets to his stop, he looks at the girl one last time, and gets off, never to see her again…why? because almost everyone “drops off” in that leap from non-verbal to verbal communication.  The solution that seems natural, which some location based services companies are going after, is to add a digital layer, on top of this physical layer, and enable strangers to interact non-verbally (but much more richly than smiles and body language) through the use of text based communication.  In this case, text based communication (IM/direct message/text/email) is the bridge between non-verbal and verbal communication within a physical proximity.  The problem, however, is that the requirements from a network effect perspective are so great, that these two soul mates don’t stand a snowballs chance in hell of realizing their life together (which would result in the maximum net volume of communication possible in the subway car).  Some sort of near field communication technology, where you can point and aim texGmail hoodytual messages to strangers in a physical proximity would be rad, but in the meantime, I decided to run a little experiment to see if I couldn’t lower the “drop off” by converting my physical proximity strangers into the safer world of online communication.  I present to you, my Gmail hoody.  I have worn it about 5 times, and every time, I have gotten at least one email from a stranger.  What’s more, simply by signaling that I am open to communication, 3-4 strangers per day approach me and engage in verbal communication (i.e. is that your real email? etc… etc…).  Obviously, people are not going to walk around displaying their digital identities on their clothes everyday, but I think the potential for display of online identities based on real world physical proximity has some real room for improvement… If you want to make your own Gmail hoody, I recommend this place in DUMBO

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    I’m a NYC based investor and entrepreneur. I've started a few companies and a venture capital firm. You can email me at (p.s. i don’t use spell check…deal with it)


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