Toucan, My Professional Kilimanjaro

image of author Paul Murphy

Paul Murphy


4 min read

Toucan event with Bill von Hippel

Last week I told you about my first visit to Kilimanjaro, what got me there, and what got stuck in my memory. I also mentioned the ocean, Spain, Israel, Argentina, and Thailand. All of these thoughts and places are linked to works of art that had enough of an impact to get me on a plane. Sometimes I visited, and sometimes I stayed.

The only common thread to these stories was me. But what I didn’t talk about were professional obsessions. Today I want to tell you about some of the things that are pushing me to make Toucan the perfect embodiment of a new kind of profoundly human online interaction.

I’m obviously not doing this alone – I’m working with a very talented team – but I can’t presume to speak for everyone!


Socializing on video-conferencing platforms designed for one-to-one interaction is great. My kids are currently in 3 different countries. I’m in a fourth. If it weren’t for Facetime and WhatsApp, the long separations would be a lot tougher.

Other video-conferencing platforms are designed for business meetings and presentations, i.e., one-to-many interactions. Socializing on those platforms, to put it bluntly, sucks. That sounds harsh, but I say that with the greatest love for the many stalwarts – Skype, GoToMeeting, Meet, Teams, Zoom – that have made distributed work possible. I’m happy with daily standups and all-hands on those platforms, but I will not use them for anything even remotely social.

I don’t want to “hang out” with my colleagues in Zoom, I don’t want to talk to my cousins on Teams, I don’t want to attend a book club on Meet. Why? Because they’re not designed to support socializing. They aren’t designed for many-to-many interactions. When I get together with my colleagues to not-work, or my cousins, or my book club, we don’t all want to talk to everyone else all the time. We want to do what we do when we’re physically together: have conversations in small groups.

We started Toucan to solve this problem and to solve it well. Covid was the spark that engendered the idea, but that’s not what got me excited. (I assumed the whole Covid hysteria would be over before we shipped our first beta. 😂) I got excited because I have family, friends, and colleagues all over the world. I’ve never been able to socialize with them without getting on a plane, and I certainly haven’t had a way of inviting people from more than one location to an event.

That was a long way of saying: my nomadic life has created a problem I want to solve.

Learning and Entertaining

Another obsession of mine is learning. I’m a book learner. But I’m also an experience learner, and experiences almost always have a social element. So far we’ve seen the first sparks of people leveraging Toucan to provide a learning experience. One of our hosts has created a lecture series that allows people from all over the world to practice their language skills. Lectures are in English but then people break off into groups to discuss them in various languages. They are fun events because they attract so many different people.

A good friend, a playwright, has been writing “Zoom plays” that are performed online on a regular basis. They are delightful events, but I miss the social aspect of going to a performance. The audience shows up, turns off their camera and waits for the play to start. Some people say hello to each other and quickly realize how awkward it is to have a private conversation in front of dozens of strangers. When the play is over, everyone claps and presses the leave button. That’s not how I like to experience theatre! I want to arrive early and chat with my friends. At intermission I want to get a drink and talk about the play. And afterwards, I want to do the same. We still have some work to do to make live performances work well on Toucan, but the rest of the experience we’ve nailed, and I’m proud of that.

Going forward all teaching and cultural events will include a social element.


One of my recent obsessions is etiquette. For those of you who haven’t read my long post on the subject, my thesis is that etiquette is a critical emergent property of culture. Digital culture is brand new, and for a lot of reasons the idea of letting etiquette develop in that realm has been sidelined in favor of more aggressive options. I understand why. Problems arose quickly and had to be solved quickly. But those quick-and-dirty fixes are not good long-term solutions. We need etiquette.

Because Toucan does such a good job of supporting natural social interaction, we are seeing patterns of etiquette emerge. I won’t go into detail – that’s the topic of a future post – but it’s happening and it’s exciting. Because the medium is different, the etiquette patterns we’re seeing are different from those we use in physical space, which is to be expected. Toucan is turning out to be a laboratory for the evolution of digital etiquette.

I’ve always been lucky. Being able to work on a product that intersects with so many of my personal obsessions make me think that luck hasn’t run out yet! Toucan is my professional Kilimanjaro. It’s a mountain, a climb, and a series of discoveries. I’m enjoying every minute of the journey.

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About author

image of author Paul Murphy

Paul Murphy

Toucan co-founder.
Rabbi, driving instructor, and acrobat in parallel universes.

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