cultural divide in IM: presence vs. communication
To most of my friends, i appear always-on. If i’m not on the computer, my IMs usually go to my Sidekick. I have a round-the-clock presence on AIM, even if frequently idle. I share this round-the-clockness with some of my buddies – people who always appear to be on, although sometimes idle. There are other buddies who pop up whenever they’re on their computer (often 9-5). Then, there are those who pop up very occasionally.
The thing about members of this latter category is that they *always* want to talk when they come online. This makes sense – they’re appearing online only to talk, not to share presence. They are seeing IM as a communication tool first and foremost.
Interestingly, it is this group that complains the most about how they can never get anything done when IM is on. I try really hard not to respond in a snarky voice that i can never get anything done when they’re on. They get upset when i don’t have time to talk, arguing that i shouldn’t be online if i don’t want to talk.
There is, in fact, a culture divide in instant messaging.
As someone who is always on, i spend a small fraction of the day using IM. It is always on because of presence. There are types of ‘interruptions’ that are not actually interruptions. For example, when my roommate wants to ask when i’ll be home or when a friend wants to know a reference. Quick, practical questions that are far more like presence pokes than interruptions. Then, there are acceptable interruptions – things like work questions, emergencies, pointers to relevant info, etc. And then, there’s conversation.
I don’t spend a lot of time conversing on IM, very little in fact. I simply do not have time. But, i am 10 million times more likely to converse with someone who is always-on than someone who just pops up for conversation. The reason is simple – collective signaling of conversational possibility. As an always-on’r, when someone pokes me to talk and i don’t have time, i say sorry – can’t talk or some equivalent (except in the case of my phone which might appear to be on while i’m doing something but isn’t really). I expect the same from my fellow always-on’rs. So, when i’m in the mood to talk to people and they’re in the mood to talk to me (or we’re equally procrastinating), we come to a consensus and conversation happens.
Now, let’s go back to the people who come online just to talk. The problem with this group is that they’re unintentionally exerting power. They are declaring their free time by logging on and they’re assuming that i am signaling the same thing. But i’m not. This is simply cultural cluelessness. But when they then get upset with me, that’s the exertion of power. And this is what has prompted me to change IM accounts or block people in the past. Now, i’m just rude.
Consider the telephone. When your phone rings, are you required to pick it up? At first, everyone assumed you were. Eventually, we learned that the phone doesn’t have to have that kind of power over us. And many of us now screen and only pick up the phone when it is applicable to the situation we’re in. (Of course, some of us still need to learn that.) The caller is signaling their free time, but the receiver gets to decide if it’s culturally appropriate. And thus, they are actually doing the negotiating dance of us always-on’rs.
The problem with IM is that the always-on’rs have gotten far more comfortable with the technology than those who still see it as a communication tool, not just a desirable presence tool. The cultural divide is very much magnified by experience and time spent engaged in the technology. Of course, the split happens around those who recognize the value of presence and want to do what it takes culturally to retain that.
Update: Since Liz called me on bits of this entry, i should clarify a key assumption i was making in presenting this argument – i am talking very explicitly about people with relatively equal standing in terms of power (i.e. peers). While all “equal” relationships are about negotiating power back and forth, the technology consistently gives one person in the peer-duo power over the other – that’s where the problem is primarily situated. With unequal power pairings, the problem is exacerbated because there’s an assumption of equal power standing in IM that is not actually true to form. For example, as a TA in college, i would have students who thought they could bug me anytime they had a problem with their assignment. This happened because it was assumed that there was equal power between IM participants and so the negotiation of power got usurped by the technology because the context got cleansed. In other words, all IM windows look the same and so you forget about the context that would normally differentiate situations of equal footing (such as the bar) and situations of differentiated footing (such as the TA office).