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.


A few weeks ago, my company announced a new corporate discount for Sprint. I have a Sprint account, so I called up to get a free discount, nor realizing how much time it would cost me. The actual discount line only took a few minutes, and I thought I was all good. Just before hanging up, the Sprint representative said something about how I would get two bills - one under my old rate, and one with my discount applied.

In retrospect, I should have just said "no, never mind, I don't want the discount" right then. This was a clear notice that the discount program was new, and the billing system wasn't made to handle discounts. I might have guessed that nothing at Sprint was made to handle the discounts, especially given my previous experience trying to get an overcharge refunded by Sprint. But I was young and foolish then.

Several months ago I signed up for online billing through Sprint. I get notified by email whenever I have a new bill, and I go to the website and pay the bill. No need to pay postage or kill trees. So last week I got my email telling me I had a new bill, only when I went to the website, there was no bill. The website informed me that the service was "temporarily unavailable." After a few days of seeing the same "temporary" problem, I contacted customer service. I still have (I assume) a good three weeks before my bill is due, but I can already see the late fee I will no doubt receive for not paying the bill Sprint has made it impossible for me to pay.

Customer service responded that I don't have online bills because I switched accounts. They even gave me my old and new account numbers, which were two numbers I had never seen before, always referring to my account by the phone number. I wrote back that I was not informed I would lose online billing when I applied the corporate discount, and if they can't bring it back, I'm canceling my account altogether.

I got this account when Jessica and I both lived in Bloomington, but now I have a local Des Moines phone, so I'm only holding on to the Sprint account until Jessica moves here in December anyway. I figured Jessica could just get new phone a few months early if Sprint gave me reason to follow through on my threat to cancel service.

It turns out, I was told, I could pay online. A "specialist" would be calling me within 24 hours. Apparently the specialist doesn't specialize in calling people on time, as that was about 36 hours ago and no one has called me.

So I'm documenting this here for two reasons. First, so I have a record of what went wrong, as I have a suspicion it will go even more wrong in the future. And second, to warn others about Sprint's craptacular service. I'll be sure to post an update when I get that late notice for the bill Sprint won't allow me to pay.