The fading boundaries of internet communication

Here is a decidedly non-technical blog for a change. I suppose it is loosely related to nettiquette in some ways, and early attempts of people to define appropriate behaviour (such as this early RFC), but I think those have been rather outdated, and this is a more contemporary view.

The early days

In the early days there was really only one way for people to communicate over the internet, namely e-mail. This was still very similar to regular snail mail, since most people did not have access to the internet and their e-mail 24/7, as they do today. If you had internet access at all, it was generally via a dial-up connection, where you paid per minute of usage or such.

So a common pattern with e-mail was something like this:

  1. Dial into the internet provider
  2. Retrieve new e-mails
  3. Send e-mail replies that you have prepared offline
  4. Close the internet connection
  5. Read the new e-mails and reply to them offline

You would perform these tasks a few times per week at most, in order to keep the cost down (and most people would only have one phone line anyway, so the line was busy while they were online, and they could not be reached by telephone).

So it was not a direct communication medium. Much like conventional mail, you should expect a round-trip time of a few days at the least. This meant that e-mail messages generally also had a more formal character, and your messages would generally be relatively long, as you’d write down everything you wanted to say or ask in one message, since there was no interaction with the recipient.

Each e-mail message also has a subject, and e-mail clients will sort conversations by subject. Generally you will keep your e-mail messages around after you read them, especially when they are important. E-mail clients will offer various features to archive, sort and search for specific messages. And with the advent of HTML in e-mail, you have relatively powerful word processing features, such as using different fonts, sizes, colours and such, to make large texts easier to read, and quote parts of the message you are replying, for example.

Instant messaging

Once it became feasible to remain online for longer periods of time, another type of internet communication became popular: instant messaging. Where e-mail is much like snail mail, instant messaging more closely resembles a telephone conversation.

In its most basic form, instant messaging is only possible when both parties are online at the same time. Much like how you can only have a conversation when the other party picks up the phone. And much like a phone call, each line of conversation is sent to the receiver directly, allowing them to respond immediately. This greatly changes the style of conversation compared to e-mail. There is direct interaction. Generally, when you say something, the other party will respond immediately, and the conversation may take a different turn than what you originally planned.

Like a phone call, this makes instant messaging a good medium for quick questions or reaching agreements of some sort. But, like a phone call, it also has a fleeting, informal nature. Instant messengers do not always log conversations (much like how most phone calls are not recorded), and even if they do, it is generally not that easy to find fragments of older conversations, agreements and the like. They generally see everything as one large conversation, without any subject or anything to organize it. So unlike e-mail, instant messaging is not a very good medium for more formal and important conversations.

Evolution over time

In recent years, more and more people are online all the time, either at work or at home. And because of smartphones, people are even online when they are on the move. As a result, new e-mail is now received almost instantly. And people can also reply almost instantly, if they wish. And instant messaging is not necessarily as ‘instant’ as it once was: messages can be stored when the recipient is not online, and delivered at a later time.

So the lines have blurred somewhat: e-mail can take on a more interactive nature when both parties are online at the same time, and respond to a message on short notice. And conversely, instant messaging can now also be used to send someone a message that they will receive at a later time. You will sometimges get a bit of ‘slow chat’ that way, when you send something, and the other party responds a few hours later… and you respond a few hours later again. Not necessarily a problem in my opinion, but it does defy the ‘instant’ nature of the medium.

It has been my experience that some people have problems keeping these technologies separate. For example, when you send someone an e-mail message, they will respond in a fleeting, informal way, with just a few short lines addressing only a small part of the total message. And they don’t make use of the fact that e-mail messages are archived neatly by their client, so they can re-read the message, and respond to the rest in more detail later.

This annoys me personally. When I write an e-mail, I write it because everything in the message is important. I don’t want to have to respond by pointing out the remaining points in my earlier message, which could easily have been re-read anyway. When having a conversation with instant messaging, it is less of an issue, since it is more interactive and less formal in nature anyway. But treating a formal e-mail as an instant message is annoying.

Why this happens with some people, I am not sure. My guess is that they are not familiar with e-mail as a medium. Perhaps they feel the same kind of ‘pressure’ of responding quickly as with instant messaging, and this results in them only skimming the message, and only quickly jotting down their initial response. I can somewhat relate to that, since for me the opposite is true: While I have years of experience with e-mailing and instant messaging on computers, I am not that good when it comes to texting, WhatsApp and such on a smartphone. I cannot type as quickly, and in some cases I may have trouble keeping up with the conversation.

Getting drafted

But one of the characteristics of e-mail is, or at least should be, that it is not interactive, and it does not matter if you take a bit longer with your reply. In fact, most e-mail clients will even assist you with that. They offer a draft mode, where you can start composing your e-mail, and save the work-in-progress at any time, so you can return to it later and finish it. Another way to keep track of your e-mail is to use the read/unread status. If you read a message quickly, and decide it deserves a thorough response, but you do not have the time right now, you can just set it to unread again, so it will get your attention again next time you go through your e-mail. If it is really important, you can also flag the message.

I suppose the issue with e-mails, especially if you get many of them and/or longer messages, is an issue of time management. I think the best way to deal with that is to use the above techniques to keep track of messages you want to re-read or answer at a later time, and then set aside some fixed times each day (or week) to process your e-mail backlog. At work I like to do my e-mail in the mornings, with a cup of coffee. Some messages will get pushed back into the backlog for the next day… Or perhaps for later the same day, when I get some spare time to look at the e-mail again. During the day I normally won’t answer e-mails when they come in, unless they are short and/or urgent.

Speaking of urgent e-mails… I suppose combining e-mail and instant messaging/phone has some potential here. If you have an issue that is rather urgent, but at the same time rather formal and/or lengthy, then I would write it down in an e-mail (because people can read and re-read it at their leasure), and I will also poke them to answer it urgently via an instant message or a quick phone call, if it takes too long for them to respond.

Now, there was also something on web 2.0, social media, and how messaging has become more and more decentralized with mediums like online forums, Facebook etc. taking over from e-mail and dedicated messaging networks, but well, I’ll leave it at this.

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