Peter Krautzberger on the web

A virtual Kaffehaus on g+

So that went well.

Two weeks ago I tried to do something that I always wanted to do and that Sam had done a couple of times with a more specific focus. That is, use google+ hangouts to simply meet people.

If you don’t know them by now (go read Sam’s posts!), google+ hangouts are really the only reason to be on google+ for me. I know, I know, there’s tons of mathematicians on google+ and really for a research mathematician it’s probalby the best social network. But that’s besides the point.

For me, the key feature are the hangouts. The hangouts are the first, free video conferencing system that works, in fact amazingly well, with a wealth of features (screensharing, collaborative writing and, of course, pirate hats), with the on air feature, it even allows you to record your hangout and have it on youtube afterwards. In short, it is a pretty good deal (you pay in privacy, of course) and you see a lot of fantastic people using it for all kinds of stuff, e.g. very prominently Barack Obama but also scientists such as Bad Astronomer Phil Plait doing Q&As or virtual star parties, hooking up a telescope to look at your favorite planets. It’s fantastic stuff.

So what would I be doing with the hangouts? I just moved to LA, which means I left a good deal of friends and contacts behind (yet again) and I have the need to literally hang out with friends. Then there are also other people I always wanted to get in touch with. That is all these fantastic bloggers that I got to know on twitter, on their blogs and in other places, that are doing interesting stuff all the time – I would love a chance to talk to them.

Finally, two weeks ago, I tried to have a hangout. I didn’t announce it until it started – and (surprise!) it didn’t work at all. The simple reason was: nobody was around! Desperate that I was, I even made the hangout “public” (which means anybody can join in) which quickly got really weird. Thankfully, my connection immediately crashed when random people showed up and tried talking to me. (I should’ve known better, actually since there are websites that list public hangouts – be careful what you wish for…)

How could I create a hangout as I had wanted? A hangout where you actually want to be open for people to join but not demanding it from them. You don’t want to be open to everybody, but you want to be open to a lot of people, people you may have never met in person but know by some form of communication or another.

Last week, I tried to do it a little bit better and I specifically invited people to an “event”, another google+ feature (as on other social networks) which annoys people with invites to random events that they don’t care about.

To be less offensive, I did this last minute, i.e., the evening before the hangout, and explained the point of this in the “invitation”. Mostly, I wanted to give people ample opportunity to ignore the “invitation” because I wanted to keep the hangout light, informal, no strings attached.

And it actually worked. I got a chance to hook up with one American and two English mathematicians and bloggers that I actually quite admire – Christian Perfect, Vincent Knight and Patrick Honner. All four of us where there for only half an hour but it was wonderful: I had my morning coffee, talked to interesting people in person for the first time and just generally enjoyed being able to connect.

And that’s what I would like to have. The equivalent of a Wiener Kaffehaus, a place where interesting people gather and you’re essentially sure that you’ll run into someone, even though you might not know who exactly or for how long. But when you do, you can sit down, sip your coffee and have a decent conversation.

But any good experiment requires reproduction, so yesterday I followed the same pattern and chanced upon Patrick Honner, Vincent Knight, Dana Ernst, our own Sam Coskey and even Andrew Brooke-Taylor (on g+) stopped by for a few minutes before going to bed (in Japan). Arguably, I talked too much (nobody who’s met me will be surprise), but it was a lot of fun.

Well, that’s three data points. But it has again strengthened my conviction that hangouts/videconferencing will have a huge impact. Don’t get me wrong. We’re not there yet. For example, when Andrew jumped in, I would have loved to “get up from the table” and sit down with him privately to catch up. But nevertheless, hangouts go in the right direction. As a video chat room they are not yet as flexible as a Kaffeehaus, but it feels like we’re almost there and that it’s not the technology per se that’s holding us back anymore (10 video-streams are almost certainly enough for my purposes).

Soon enough, we might get a real Kaffeehaus, where you can sit at a single table following a single conversation, step away for a nice quiet chat (yet overhearing the ongoing conversation) or wander over and meet some new people at some new table.

For mathematics (and research in general) this is a great opportunity, to be able to connect with other researchers (or even the great unknown “public”) in yet another crucial way. If MathOverflow becomes the common room, then video-conferencing could become the coffee shop.

I look forward to trying this again next week. If you want to drop by, just let me know.