Yesterday I was listening to a teleconference, and the local phone was muted. I started thinking about how speaking turns are negotiated in teleconferencing. Turn negotiation is increasingly an issue as less and less of our communication happens face-to-face anymore.

Different communications technologies allow for different styles of turn-taking. In iChat, for example, I can see when someone starts to type something, so I’ll wait for them to finish before going on with the conversation, or I’ll try to respond to their previous comment before they make another. It can be a little awkward at times, though, because the order we start speaking doesn’t always line up with the order of messages as they’re sent.

In email, this is less of an issue because there’s a longer gap between messages, but it can still be confusing on mailing lists when someone who doesn’t check their email obsessively is responding to a question that was asked yesterday and has already been answered several times and forgotten by the rest of the list.

I’m particularly interested in this issue because I’m pretty awful at turn taking in face-to-face conversation. Things should be easiest with all the context of visual cues and body language indicating who is about to speak, but I have a hard time taking what should be my turns in conversation. People tell me I don’t talk much. Hmm… I wonder if anyone ever tells someone they don’t listen much.

A long time ago I read that Ghandi, or maybe it was Buddha, would speak little so the few words had more impact. I remember thinking well of myself when I read that, but that’s entirely justification, not motivation, for my own speaking less. I failed my first driving test because I was too slow to pull out into traffic. If there were a conversation test, I’d fail that for the same reason.

So anyway, that’s what got me thinking about turn negotiation in teleconferencing, and in the process, I think I came up with a decent idea for a business. The elevator pitch: it would be the American Idol model of user-selected media applied to teleconferencing.

Phone Idol?

So rather than calling and voting on contestants you watch on TV, you would call to vote on contestants you hear on the phone. You and another random person listen to each other for a span of time, maybe a minute, and then you each press a button on your phone to vote on how interesting the other person’s speech/song/whatever was.

Then you move on and repeat this process for a few rounds until someone with something interesting to share has come out on top by social selection. Then everyone is patched in to hear the winning person do whatever they want to do on the teleconference for a minute or so. Rinse, and repeat.

The winning audio clips could be recorded and published as a podcast to increase the incentive to participate. Ads could run on the teleconference, or maybe it would work with a 1-900 number. I’m sure someone with an MBA could work out the business model, but I think there’s a business there waiting to be made.

Or maybe someone has already done something like this. I’ve never used one of those "party lines." Are they anything like this, or is that more of a dating thing? I don’t suppose there are many original ideas of things to do with phones any more, but I thought it was interesting enough to write up.