You know how it sometimes takes a Mariah Carey GIF to really get your point across? You might soon enough.
Text-based communication is gradually becoming less about text, or at least not just about text. Emojis are now common enough in work correspondence to require etiquette guides. Here at Fast Company, GIFs and short YouTube videos regularly pepper our Slack channels, and chances are that you're seeing more multimedia in whatever group chat platform your company uses, too.
This might be a very good thing. Emails are notoriously prone to being misread. In a 2005 study, researchers found people picked up on sarcasm in email messages just 56% of the time, making the chances of a joke actually landing not much better than a coin toss.
It probably doesn’t help that recruiters and hiring managers keep saying they need emotionally intelligent employees, but are having more trouble finding them. Some also report that younger workers tend to lack communication skills in particular, possibly thanks to the fact that so much communicating now happens behind screens.
Experts are still studying how digital technology affects the way we experience and convey emotion. But insofar as that interplay actually is causing communication breakdowns at work, can it also be a part of the solution?
Enter Vidii, a chat app launching this week that not only lets you add high-def, full-audio videos to ordinary text messages but—if you chat within the platform—will also employ artificial intelligence (AI) to analyze your emotional responses to them.
So instead of just sending you a grainy GIF of Mariah Carey crooning mutely before a pack of sailors, I can now treat you to a "vidicon" (no relation to the hardware used in 1950s TVs) of that same dance sequence from the music video for "Honey," but this one's in HD and every gorgeous note is intact. Vidii even links out to the full-length video, so the uninitiated can find out exactly what sliver of sepia-toned, late '90s splendor they've just glimpsed.
To confirm that you enjoyed the multimedia offerings shared with you, Vidii uses your smartphone camera to scan your face, read your reaction, and drop the sender an "emoji receipt" like this , absolving you of the need to text back, "LOL loved it!!" As the AI gets the hang of what you like, it’ll suggest new vidicons for you to reply with.
What’s it all for? According to founder and CEO E.L. Mont, one of Vidii’s main goals is to humanize digital communication. "When you look at text messaging," he tells Fast Company, "it’s basically saying humans have to go back to figuring out how to interface with a computer in some way. It’s speaking at their level." Typing limits how well we can express ourselves, says Mont. "That’s why we prefer to have face-to-face and voice-to-voice [interactions]."
For many, those don’t just convey emotion better, they’re also more enjoyable. Vidii is supposed to be fun, not merely useful. The platform isn’t meant as a workplace tool, but it isn’t hard to see how it could become one—for eliminating communication misfires, propping up workers’ emotional intelligence, or even boosting low "engagement" rates.
On the other hand, it’s just as easy to imagine how some might find it distracting or overstimulating in any context. If I had to devise a system of communication perfectly crafted to exasperate my mother, for example, Vidii would be it (I texted her to confirm this, which she did). There may be just as many tech-savvy, emotionally intelligent professionals like her in the workforce as there are those who are jonesing for more Breaking Bad clips in their workflow.
There’s already been something of a "Slacklash" among users of group messaging platforms who feel those tools are burying them beneath an avalanche of frivolous chatter. That’s impacting work cultures, they say; group chat pretty much forces everyone to be, well, chatty.
Mont doesn’t see multimedia’s role in messaging quite the same way. For one thing, he says, "We’re sharing personal experiences," even through vidicons. "When you send one of these things, people can relate—be it to that person’s personality or your experience seeing that particular film or a callback to other days." We allude to pop culture in face-to-face conversations all the time, he points out—it’s already how we relate to each other—and humans have been using images to communicate long before writing was invented. "It’s part of our nature," he says.
As for the distraction question, Mont raises a point others have made in the debate over email’s supposed demise at the hands of group messaging apps: It's hard to engage with any type of communication system in real-time. For all its alleged faults, Gmail product manager John Rae-Grant told Fast Company earlier this year, "Email is non-disruptive. It’s asynchronous. If you want to just inform someone about something, you send them an email with the expectation that they’ll get to it, just not necessarily right away."
That’s why live video-chat—a synchronous format, by contrast—isn’t exactly supplanting "I’ll-just-get-to-that-later" ones. Mont and his team devised vidicons to be non-disruptive, too. Just like "snaps" sent to you on Snapchat, you can open them whenever you want to. Rather than coax people into real-time communication, Vidii and Google are both working on making the asynchronous type better, with the help of machine learning.
Gmail has introduced tools like Smart Reply that suggests phrases to reply with, and the design of Google's newer Inbox app shows the company is experimenting with other AI-powered features that can automate the more tedious parts of the process and personalize others.
Adding multimedia to the table doesn't necessarily flip it over, Mont believes. "It’s not intended that every message you send is a vidicon—unless you’re trying to one up each other!" Ultimately, he says, "It lightens the mood. It doesn’t change the conversation, it’s part of the conversation."
Only now, that conversation is between you and me and Mariah, too.