Radio·Personal essay

We made a radio show without meeting in person. This is what we learned about remote technology

Two radio producers created the radio program called Us, But Nobody is Here from Iqaluit and Montreal without meeting in person to see how the internet is changing how we communicate.

Technology is allowing us to embrace relationships that don’t require physical proximity

Producing our CBC Radio program Us, But Nobody is Here was an experiment in testing how far technology can go in connecting people. (CBC)

Kieran Oudshoorn and I had never met when we decided to produce a radio program together about technology and distance, which is fitting considering where we live. 

He lives in Iqaluit and my home is in Montreal — a geographical span that includes northern Quebec, a trip across the Hudson Strait and Baffin Island. 

It should be an indomitable distance for two people who want to make a radio program, but thanks to the internet, geography is fairly trivial. 

We tweaked the scripts instantaneously by using a shared document, moved audio files between our computers at lightning speed and we stayed in contact with text messages. 

Technology like this is changing our society in all kinds of ways. Next fall, Ontario is poised to introduce mandatory online high school coursestech workers often work virtually and video calls have made long-distance relationships easier.

One of the places we visited to understand how people are grappling with remote technology is Gab, a co-working space in Montreal.

Inside there are a couple of rows of desks with people sitting in front of their laptops. 

At Gab, I meet Derek Winnicki, a mobile developer who recently moved from Vancouver to Montreal. 

The Gab, a co-working cafe in Montreal, is where remote workers can have the experience of working in an office. (CBC)

He works for a company based out of New Zealand.

"Mostly everybody hasn't met each other," he said.

Winnicki says he went a year and a half not even knowing what his co-workers looked like since they communicated mostly using text messages 

"I spend a lot of time working by myself." 

He doesn't feel isolated though. Winnicki says sharing funny GIFs or spending time in group chats makes him feel like he's part of a team. 

Emojis as body language

Kieran and I also found that GIFs and emojis became important to communicate emotions. 

Author and internet linguist Gretchen McCulloch calls emojis the body language of the digital world. 

"The most popular emoji are the hand and faces and hearts, which all have these direct gestural correlates," she said. 

The tone a single emoji can communicate is wide, she says. They can change the meaning of a message from support to sarcastic. 

"If you say something like good job with a thumbs-up [emoji] versus good job with the middle finger [emoji], you end up with quite a different interpretation."

She says emojis are so important for digital communication that it's changing the written language. 

Gretchen McCulloch's book Because Internet explores the generational differences in online speak. (Yvon Huynh/Riverhead Books)

This is different than earlier generations where writing was usually seen as a formal way of sending a message. 

"We expect more from writing. We expect writing to be capable of conveying a tone of voice," she said.

Another peculiarity of digital communication is we're never sure who we are speaking to. Almost anything in the digital space can become fodder for a viral meme. 

"In physical space, we have a lot of body cues to whether or not we've seen something. In virtual space, you can send out a message and have no idea if no one has seen it or millions have seen it unless you get some kind of reaction,"  McCulloch said.

Waiting for a reaction is one of the reasons why working with Kieran could make me anxious. In the real world when you speak with someone, they respond instantly. Online, however, there is almost always a pause. That lag was more than enough time to dream up narratives about why Kieran was upset about something I did, like an edit to one of his scripts. 

The meeting

After seven months of working remotely, Kieran came to Montreal so we could finish the episode.

Unsurprisingly, working together was more pleasant than working virtually. 

For one, it was easier to relate as friends. There was the potential to go for dinner or just have a meandering conversation. Also while emojis are a great stand-in for gestures, they still don't compete with the complexity that body language can communicate. 

Craig Desson and Kieran Oudshoorn making their radio program Us, But Nobody is Here in Montreal. (Submitted: Katherine McLeod)

Going from working in a virtual environment to a real one felt a bit like setting out a two-dimensional environment into the real world. Working inside programs like Google Docs or Slack is working in a space with rules set by teams of developers, designers and marketers. Real-world communication doesn't have rules but instead, cultural expectations that can be interpreted, challenged and played with. 

Remote tech has a long way to go before it can catch up with the freedom and creativity the real world offers. However, it opens doors for collaboration that won't be possible if we were limited by geography. It was after all, how we got to make this radio program in the first place. 

Us, But Nobody is Here is produced by Craig Desson, a producer with CBC Montreal, and Kieran Oudshoorn a reporter with CBC North.