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MIT Develops Open Source Tool to Support Spontaneous Online Conversations

Researchers at MIT's Sloan School of Management have developed a new software platform for having private, on-the-spot conversations online. Called Minglr, the open source tool is designed to replicate the kinds of interactions people might have before and after meetings, in the lobby during breaks of conferences and around the office coffee machine, in a virtual environment. "By making these interactions possible online, systems like Minglr can further boost the desirability and feasibility of remote work, learning, and professional networking," the university said in a news announcement.

The research team was led by Thomas W. Malone, Patrick J. McGovern Professor of Management at MIT Sloan and founding director of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence. "I think ad-hoc interactions — those 'hallway conversations' — are among the most important things that people miss in today's work-from-home environment," said Malone, in a statement. "From a collective intelligence standpoint, lots of research suggests that those random encounters are key to creative innovations in cities, research labs, companies and elsewhere. And we know from our own personal experiences that they are also critical to making new professional connections, forming social bonds and building camaraderie in a group. But most people don't realize how straightforward it is to create videoconferencing software that supports these ad-hoc interactions. We want to demonstrate what is possible, and we hope that all major videoconferencing systems will implement functionality like that in Minglr."

Built on the open source videoconferencing system Jitsi, Minglr allows users to log on via a web browser and see a list of people who are available to talk, select who they want to talk with, accept or deny chat requests, and enter a private video room for those impromptu conversations. In a pilot at the June MIT Collective Intelligence 2020 meeting, held online, reception to the tool was positive, with 86 percent of participants who used the Minglr system reporting in a survey that they thought future online conferences should employ something like it.

"The positive feedback we received on Minglr has helped us see new pathways for its functionality," said Jaeyoon Song, an incoming MIT Sloan PhD student and researcher on the project. "We knew that the system could be valuable at virtual business meetings and professional conferences, but now we see potential uses in virtual classes, parties and other kinds of social engagements. Minglr allows you to meet new people, chat with folks you already know and spark different kinds of conversations. With Minglr, we see a future that involves much richer and deeper online interaction."

About the Author

Rhea Kelly is editor in chief for Campus Technology, THE Journal, and Spaces4Learning. She can be reached at [email protected].

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