BOB GARFIELD: Every new way of communicating opens up new opportunities for incivility. Letters, always, email, of course, online comments, oh my, yes. People sitting by themselves writing to strangers they know only through the radio seem not to care or even realize they’ve adopted a tone of pure rage or utter lunacy. Well, at least in email, now there’s a cure for that. What if your email service could tell you before you even press “Send” just how aggressive or angry your missive is? In September of last year, we spoke to Josh Merchant, the chief technology officer and cofounder of Lymbix, a Canadian software company, whose Tone Check provides emotional spell check [LAUGHS] for overheated emailers. Just install Tone Check on your preferred email service and voila, it will gauge the hostility of your message before it’s sent. Josh, welcome to OTM.
JOSH MERCHANT: Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: So let’s just say that I had read an article by someone who suggests that the designated hitter rule has improved baseball, and my comment begins with, “Yo, Scumbag, I hope you never reproduce because clearly you are a net loss to humanity.” What stops me from hitting “Send” on that?
JOSH MERCHANT: Initially, we went through quite a bit of different renditions of the product, and we landed on a version that essentially has sort of a bar meter at the bottom right-hand corner of your window. As you type, the bars get more red, so when you go to hit Send button, it will automatically expand this window and say, listen, you know, you’ve exceeded this negative tolerance, so we wanted to warn you, and here are some things that you said, so it would actually highlight the phrasing around “Hey, you scumbag” and say this comes off as very aggressive. And it gives you the opportunity to go back and reword that, if you care to do so.
BOB GARFIELD: Many times on OTM we have discussed the idea that the Internet is a playground for the id because there are no governors on instant reaction to whatever kind of emotional trigger you’ve just had triggered.
JOSH MERCHANT: It all depends on where the communication is happening. For email, we are a little bit more careful when we send messages but when it comes down to comments or forums and such, the expression that you’re putting out there is definitely very in-the-heat-of-the-moment, very passionate.
BOB GARFIELD: There just doesn’t seem to be a subject that is neutral enough to prevent this incendiary rhetoric. I mean, you go to a classical music site, you know, you will see the most vile things said about Wagner lovers, for example.
JOSH MERCHANT: [LAUGHS] I think people don’t have an appreciation for the fact that, you know, this is a digital communication forum, and sometimes people are, are just wanting to be angry to see if they can throw conversations off from, from where they were.
BOB GARFIELD: If I have the Tone Check plug-in installed and I'm a troll, and being transgressive and getting a rise out of people is entirely my purpose for being online, will, like, smoke start coming out of my computer and sparks and short circuits?
JOSH MERCHANT: Coincidentally, a lot of trolls did download our software and sent us many messages around how they were able to deviate from what we were able to pick up versus not pick up.
BOB GARFIELD: They’ve hacked your software to the point that they can be as vile as they want without triggering your red flags?
JOSH MERCHANT: You can be extremely creative and be a very mean person in a very nice way that can fool it. The sarcasm level is, again, very difficult because you can be very nice but very cold without a piece of software able to really pick it up.
BOB GARFIELD: Some of your clients are businesses who have installed it as a plug-in for their intranets, and I’m curious whether their employees complain that this somehow restricts their ability to communicate.
JOSH MERCHANT: We definitely got the pushback from HR departments and employees saying that this feels very Big Brother. We don’t necessarily want our emails to be read when, in fact, I mean, the irony is that it is read. In companies that have more than a thousand employees, all of their messages are actually logged and audited.
BOB GARFIELD: You know, I can see how Tone Check could be helpful to me, but I’ll tell you what would really change my life. Do you think you could come up with something for my actual mouth?
JOSH MERCHANT: We thought about extending this into voice translation and potentially even adding the little delays on phone calls. You know, we could actually mute it all or block it out.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, when you do come up with the larynx module, give me a holler, would you?
JOSH MERCHANT: You’d be the first one I call.
BOB GARFIELD: All right. Josh, thanks so much.
JOSH MERCHANT: Thanks Bob, I appreciate it.
BOB GARFIELD: Josh Merchant is the co-founder and CEO of Lymbix, licensor of Tone Check.