The concept of instant messaging, in its various forms, has been around since dialup days. Recall the scene in the 1998 movie You’ve Got Mail when the two characters, Joe Fox and Kathleen Kelly, respectively played by Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, suddenly realize they are both “online” at the same time and begin to use instant messaging.
In the early scenes, the two characters are pen pals, using America Online’s email to communicate under pseudonyms. Their emails are filled with thoughtful prose, captivating observations on their daily lives, and underneath the plain text, a hint of flirtation, despite them both being in committed relationships at the time.
However, a moment comes when Joe decides to breach protocol and, noticing Kathleen is also online at the same time, sends her an instant message. The look on Meg Ryan’s character says it all. She’s initially taken aback.
Suddenly, she can no longer write contemplatively and asyncronously, but is required to muster the courage to reply “in the moment”. He can see she is online! To ignore him, after all the emails have gone back and forth, would be rude.
Of course, as Hollywood goes, it all works out in the end and the instant messaging only serves to accelerate the pace of their writing affair.
In the years that followed, instant messaging grew from a geek affection, to being used by everyday folks. IRC was for true nerds, but AOL Online, ICQ, and Skype, among many others, gave the ability to send messages back and forth that even the technology-impaired found interesting. Private messaging companies added group messaging, and also public and not-so-public chat rooms. Despite only a handful of people having broadband internet in their homes, it seemed that people were increasingly chatting with friends, family, and even strangers.
Instant Messaging was different. No need for subject lines. No need to give context. On some platforms, you need not even know the person or their real name. No need even for full sentences. Just send text and go.
Eventually, instant messaging came into its own with SMS text messaging on cell phones, first dumb, then smart. Not far behind came the advent of data-enabled messaging apps, including old favorites like Skype, but also new ones like Google Hangouts, WhatsApp, Facebook Instant Messaging, iMessage, and Snapchat.
At first, this seemed like an improvement over email. Why waste time composing an email when you could just blurt out a line or two and move on.
Instant Messaging seemed truly “instant”.
That, however, is changing.
It turns out that the novelty of getting an instant message has begun to grow thin. When you could only get instant messages for the limited hours per week you were online, it was exciting: “We are online at the same time! Let’s chat!”. AOL used to brag you could use their service for 50 hours per month, an average of not even 2 hours per day. Studies show people are ‘online’ now almost all the time during their waking hours.
When SMS text messages were limited to 160 characters per message and you had to painstakingly type using the numeric keypad, it was special to get a message. Not only did the person have to go through the same friction you did, proving that either you or the message was of value, but most of us were actually paying cell phone companies per message in those days. (There were failed attempts at this model with email — charging senders to allow their emails to appear in the recipient’s inbox — but suffice to say, SMS was the last hurrah of such a business model).
In recent years, messaging apps have added a slew of features. You can send video, audio, photos, file attachments, and more. And of course, you can send endless amounts of memes, gifs, and emoticons.
But three features are the source of an increasing amount of anxiety when it comes to instant messaging: read receipts, online status, and what I call “typing now… don’t hold your breath” mode.
At first, these seemed to enhance the instant messaging experience. I believe they are bad for human communication in all but the most critical business functions, or perhaps for certain government or law enforcement operations.
Read Receipts are especially bizarre. They were tried in the email world and, in general, considered to be a big failure. Some organizations still use them internally, but most email clients ignore requests for read receipts by default. Most people have come to expect that asking for a read receipt on emails is considered poor form and, well, a bit dorky. Look, if the email didn’t bounce, the recipient got it.
The whole concept of a read receipt is bogus. It really means that someone opened an email. Likewise on instant messaging, it just means the person opened the chat and scrolled past the latest message. Neither prove the recipient read it, or is even capable of reading. In fact, most email clients let you mark messages as read in bulk, or through the use of automated rules. Since the message being marked as read triggers the requested read receipt (if allowed), it is essentially meaningless to assume that a read receipt means a person has actually read the message. Although its more likely that a read instant message means the recipient actually read it, it is still an assumption on the sender’s part and could lead to further misunderstandings and assumptions.
What Read Receipts do accomplish is to tell the recipient that the sender now knows you have seen their message. Thus, the clock begins to tick to when you, per some unwritten social norm — which differs by sender and group — should reply or else you are ignoring that person.
The interpretation of being ignored is left solely to the sender to make. Reason and understanding as to the recipient’s busyness or lack thereof are rarely taken fairly into account. After all, if the person had to time to read the message, they should have the time to respond. These are usually short instant messages, not emails, so the sender often thinks it should’t “take that long” to reply. Never mind that there are subtle nuances in what some messages might imply. Never mind that not everyone is a particularly sensitive or emotive writer, taking great care to write engaging prose while moving the conversation progressively in a positive direction. Never mind that the person may simply find something else on their smartphone to be more engaging and interesting than your message.
As I’ve often said, no serious conflict, personal or geopolitical, can be resolved via messaging apps, but many could easily be started that way. Sometimes I’m asked by a friend “what should I write back?” when presented with a delicate message they recently received. My answer is always the same: pick up the phone and call. But most people seem to relish the opportunity to see how skilled they might be in keeping the text message thread alive without breaking out of it, despite their own history of failed attempts to de-escalate an instant message conversation.
Messaging should bond us, not separate us. When it fails to do that, as can happen more often than one might suppose with near 24/7 access to people, we need to remember that the medium does indeed have constraints despite our and Big Tech’s attempts to skirt those limitations. Conversation is humanly natural. All other forms, including email, have both hard limits and practical limits.
The next anxiety-producing feature of instant messaging is online status. During the dialup days, it was a pleasant surprise to also see your friend online on a Thursday night at 6pm. Fun for all.
But now, everyone is essentially online all the time. There is nothing unique about it. Some messaging apps not only want to show your online status, but also let you post little status updates. Although these have little value to real-world communication and relationships, they seem to be a feature that won’t go away.
One of the beautiful things about email is that composition and reading can take place entirely offline. Even if you use a web-based email client, most of them currently do not expose your ‘status’ to others in your contact list. I don’t know why anyone needs to know you are reading and writing emails at a certain hour. If you happen to send them an email, they’ll get that beautiful timestamp, but other than that, the other 300 people in your contact list need not be aware that you have insomnia and are browsing old emails at 2AM.
Lastly, the biggest farce feature in instant messaging these days is the “typing now… don’t hold your breath” feature where, typically, a few small animated dots (known as an ellipsis), indicates to the reader that the sender is typing another message (although these days, it could just as well be a photo, video, or audio message coming over the wire).
We’ve all also had the experience of seeing the ellipsis only for it to go away after a minute and no future messages come. Anxiety! Were they planning on saying something else, but demurred? Did we say something wrong above? Were they interrupted by a home invasion and are now lying in a pool of their own blood? (Choose your anxiety level carefully).
This is partially why I call it the “don’t hold your breath” feature. You could be waiting, staring at your phone, ignoring the many other things you could do in that 30 seconds, and for your troubles get exactly… nothing. (Ellipsis added there for emphasis).
I can think of few pieces of modern-day data more boring than a typing indicator. How does this add value to anyone? For every minor instance where it seemingly came in handy, there are ten times more instances where it was unnecessary or even annoying.
The beautiful thing about email is its asynchronous nature. No one knows you are typing. Also, no one cares.
Imagine a web page where each day people could see ellipses of Stephen King writing. You couldn’t actually see his completed book until it was published, but you could watch an ellipsis appear whenever he had typed something on his keyboard in his Word document that brought his book one step closer to publication. Would anyone watch such a webpage? (Don’t answer that; sadly some probably would).
To get back to my main point, these added features have created a pushback, a resistance. No one wants to be ‘available’ 24/7, so people increasingly are finding workarounds.
First, some bold types simply turn off as many of those features as they can. They hide their online status and turn off read receipts. They leave groups that serve limited value to their day. They make no apologies and simply tell people “I like my privacy”, or “I’m too busy”.
Many also use features like “mute” to quell notifications from certain people or groups. (That’s basically personal shadow-banning for ya!). They often start their replies with “so sorry… I didn’t see this until now” and then write back something meaningless and trite that rarely answers the initial message with equal dedication.
I don’t blame them; they are trying to manage a crescendo of noisy notifications, many of which are pointless corporate silliness, or centered around their possible social media addiction, but at least those don’t require personal investment in return the way that messages do.
Others have figured out how to use their notifications to essentially ‘sneak peek’, or screen, their messages, knowing full well that once they tap into the message thread, you’ll be notified they have seen it and the countdown begins.
Lastly, entire subgroups of the human race are taking occasional digital timeouts, buying dumbphones to minimize distractions, putting their phones into airplane mode when trying to work or sleep, or even removing themselves from instant messaging apps altogether. While these are still a minority of people, their numbers are increasing. Books like Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism are adding fuel to this fire.
I assert the following then:
- instant messaging should only be used for the simplest of messages that or of the greatest urgency.
- group instant messaging is, largely, distracting and of little value (more on this later) and can best be dealt with in weekly ‘batches’, if it’s required at all.
- people are finding ways to pushback on the ‘instant’ part of instant messaging, to put space and breathing room between when a message is sent and when they ‘deal’ with it.
- instant messaging is also a single endless thread, unable to be broken by subjects, and is essentially a never-ending conversation.
If the above assertions are true, then the question arises, why not just use email?
Let’s take a few examples:
Luke has just seen his favorite movie, Return of the Jedi. He wants to tell his friend Leia about it so that his friend will be compelled, against all reason and historical precedent, to drop what she’s doing this weekend and instead go see the movie.
What should Luke do?
A) Call Leia and show interest in her weekend, and in her as a person, and after some pleasantries are exchanged, mention how amazing the main character is in the movie he watched.
B) Instant message Leia and write: “Just saw ROTJ. You absolutely have to see it. You’re gonna love Jabba the Hutt!”
C) Write a lengthy movie review and send it by email, along with various links to critical reviews.
Here’s another example:
Kylo has been fascinated with helmets since time immortal. He custom designs and builds his own helmet. Knowing most of his friends don’t share his passion, he is hesitant to wear his new helmet at their next gathering.
What should Kylo do?
A) Call all his friends, one at a time, and describe the new helmet over the phone, asking them whether he should wear it, hoping they can even understand him since he’s wearing it while talking on the phone.
B) Create an Instant Messaging group called “Kylo Rules!” and make the group icon his new helmet and place all his friends in the group without asking first, and then ask them, “So, what say ye, peons?”
C) Send out an email to all his friends and include photos of his new helmet.
The point of the above is that instant messaging is not a good choice, but we’ve been conditioned (especially if you’re under the age of 35) to use it as your default. Email could work, but the more personal you can get, the better.
If instant messaging isn’t truly ‘instant’ anymore, then why use it over and above email? Just use email. People will appreciate the subject line, the chance for thoughtful composition when and if they reply, as well as the chance to (safely) ignore you without worry you saw that they had ‘read’ your message or worrying they can’t simply breach a new subject without replying to the last one you brought up. They might even take that email back out 5 years later and have a laugh. I mean, not at your helmet, because that would be, er, dangerous, but maybe laugh at the memory of the whole thing.
Running through this exercise can also help you see that maybe some things are not even worth communicating at all. Keeping “news” for when you see someone in person, or on a telephone call, is not a bad way to go either.