The Efficiency of Instant Messaging



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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. =)