The Efficiency of Instant Messaging

Realtime textual dialog, such as in IRC, ICQ, AIM, or ytalk, is a
unique communication form. Allowing for two or more participants to
simultaneously be contributing their throughts, reading responses, and
calculating replies, it is the ultimate information medium for the
attention deficient modern intellectual. It is unique from a voice
conversation that might be had in person, over the phone, or via
teleconference — and yet it is distinctly different from email or
written mail or other non-realtime modes of interaction. In many
ways, it combines the best of both for information exchange.

While there are many unique features to this medium (such as the
capacity to easily reference that which was said five minutes ago
and immediately apply it to what is currently being said), the most
relevant feature that affects the mode of interaction between users
of this medium is its asynchronous exchange. Put simply: you don’t
have to wait for the other guy to shut up to say something.

[a relevant analogy]
In computer network programming, there are two ways that your computer
can interact with another computer over the network: the first, called
“blocking,” involves you waiting for your information to be transmitted
to the other party before it can do anything else. Your program just
kind of hangs there, idling, waiting for the other party to tell you it
got its information alright. You are “blocked” from doing anything else
while you wait. The other mode is a bit more tricky to
implment nicely, and is called “non-blocking.”

In the non-blocking model, you don’t have to wait. You just go and march
on with whatever your program is going to do and the network politely
taps your shoulder when its ready for some more data (“Please, sir, can
I have some more?”). In this way, your program is always crunching,
never waiting. It is efficient.
[end of the analogy]

In the same way, when you don’t have to wait for the other person to
finish their point to make a relevant point, and can let them start
making a point while you are finishing up with one, you can stay
continuously engaged, switching as *you* see fit between reading,
writing, and pondering. When I was recently IM’ing with a particularly
sharp law student, I found myself engaged fully. I was thinking
100% and alternating between reading and writing in a manner that made
me the most efficient. It really struck me afterwards that there was
no other medium in which we could have had such a productive conversation,
so quickly bouncing ideas off of each other, refuting them, developing
others, etc.

However, the same sort of features that make IM excellent for information
exchange make it atrocious for social / personal interactions. The lack
of emotional context coupled with the need to have deep conversations be
synchronous, with spacings and carefully emoted reactions makes it seem
utterly impersonal (which it is) and lends itself to wild misinterpretations.
I’ve had whole personal relationships (and even business ones) go awry
because of bad IM sessions. Avoid IM for personal communications if at all
possible. There are only a handful of people that you’ll find yourself
able to easily converse with about deep matters in a realtime textual

I think that the funny part about this whole thing is talking with
people that use IM-type communication a lot. When two of them talk
together, it’s not much of an issue, but when a non-IM’er talks with
someone who’s been IM’ing a lot, they’ll find themselves interrupted
almost every other word out of their mouth. What they don’t realize
is that the other person isn’t trying to cut them off but is expecting
them to continue on without interrupting their speech, simply taking
the new input into consideration. It’s a multitasking modality of
thought for a multitasking society.

Just don’t try to multitask your personal converations. =)

Author: dweekly

I like to start things. :)