The intimacy of audio

People often underestimate the power of audio to create relationships.

I spent about six years deeply entangled in the world of competitive Counter-Strike, which is a team-based video game. During that time, “showing up” meant putting on my headphones and logging in to Mumble.

Mumble was a predecessor to Discord, and each server had different channels that you could join, and it was sort of like showing up at a clubhouse and poking around to see who was around, what they were talking about, and if they wanted to play a game together.

I made several real friendships this way, a few of whom I ended up spending time with in person. So I am a big believer in audio, and the power it has to be an intimate and vulnerable space.

After having that experience with other people playing Counter-Strike, I often wondered about creating that kind of experience for a team at work, or a startup. Why couldn’t a set of people working remotely put on their headphones, sit at their desks, and share a virtual audio space? Why wouldn’t it be a great way to create an office culture that seems elusive to organizations that don’t have most of their employees in the same office (which is almost all organizations in January of 2021)?

There are a few reasons:

  • Unlike competitive esports, where people self-select for a team sport experience, not everyone at a company wants their co-workers as friends also.

  • Part of the appeal of remote work is that you are not tethered to your computer or your desk. If there was an “office culture” of having your headphones in and being in an audio “office” during the workday, that would eliminate the freedom of popping over to the grocery store, the bedroom for a nap, or the trail for a hike, in the middle of the day. So people are reluctant to give up that freedom, even though they probably won’t name the reason because it doesn’t stand up well to examination. In other words, people would have to commit to entering a “virtual office” for the day, the way they normally enter a physical one, and that is just not going to happen.

  • Competitive games are well defined sports. You coordinate with a small group of people to achieve skill-based goals in a finite environment, with stakes attached to winning and losing. This is a recipe for trust and building close relationships. The fact that you are doing this thing together as well as just hanging out is an important part of what makes it a bonding experience, and those components are missing from most work.

For these reasons and probably others, I doubt that many teams or startups larger than a handful of people will adopt the esports mumble experience as a model.

The rise of Discord, which offers this kind of audio “hangout” without much of the technical hassle of Mumble or TeamSpeak, is no mystery during the pandemic. And it models the same kind of virtual hanging out that has been the mainstay of gamer culture for years.

I don’t know how much of it will stick once people feel more comfortable hanging out in real basements or bars again. It probably depends on how much of the activity Discord facilitates is better experienced separately (like playing a video game together) or together (like watching a movie). It might be that Discord has found the right recipe to unlock the connecting power of audio for non-gamers. Or it might be that someone else has yet to come along and figure it out.

But I do know that the people who are spending time together with their headphones on are building relationships in a way that getting on a scheduled Zoom call still can’t really accomplish.