I was recently trying to coordinate a group of friends to arrange a get-together so I looked through the address book on my phone. For some of them I only had a mobile phone number, for others only an email address, for others I had neither but I was friends with them on Facebook or followed them on Twitter, for one other I had neither mobile phone, email, Facebook or Twitter but I did have a landline. I set about the task of communicating with each one whilst lamenting the days when there were fewer options for communication.
Part way through this process I remembered that one member of the group who I had an email address for admitted in a previous conversation that they never looked at their email, so I also sent them a message on Twitter.
Sending and receiving messages has got complicated.
By Graham Chastney, Principal Solution Architect
Every day I send and receive messages with people via a menagerie of services:
- Multiple email mailboxes – one for business and a couple of personal ones.
- A couple of mobile phones on which I send and receive SMS messages, iMessage and WhatsApp.
- Skype for Business flashes in the corner of my screen demanding my attention.
- Facebook Messenger is there but mostly for personal messages.
- There are a couple of Twitter accounts – again personal and business.
- Instagram also has a messaging service, but I tend not to use that. The same applies to Google Hangouts.
- I’ve never ventured into Snapchat, I figure that my life is complicated enough.
- Occasionally I will talk to someone.
These are just the aps with messaging capabilities, I’ve not included online discussions forums, team collaboration areas or web conferencing systems.
We’ve moved beyond just having email
We no longer live in a world where email is the universal messaging capability. Instant messaging capabilities are well established as standard business tools. The explosion of mobile devices has precipitated an explosion in messaging apps. We are no longer satisfied with what email gives us.
Email is a store-and-forward capability; by definition it’s asynchronous, when you send someone a message you may get a response at some time in the future. When you send someone an email you have no idea whether they are present to respond, most of the time you’re not even sure they’ve read what you’ve sent them. Those characteristics are also some of the strengths of email, you can send someone a message and let them deal with it in their time. The same is true for SMS, you send someone a message and assume they’ve received it and will respond at a suitable time.
A conversation is synchronous communication. You know if you are having a conversation because the person you are conversing with responds to what you’ve said straight after you’ve said it, if they don’t respond then you are not having a conversation (they are probably be distracted by a message on their smartphone.)
Modern messaging systems seek to bridge the gap between asynchronous email and synchronous conversations. WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Skype for Business even iMessage are providing synchronous messaging which, in many ways is a contradiction of terms. Each of them tells you whether the person at the other end is available, whether they are responding even before they’ve clicked send and most of the time you are expecting an immediate response to the message that you’ve sent. Some of the modern messaging systems also provide asynchronous communications, but not all of them, to make it even more complicated.
The modern messaging systems are also seeking to enable more social messaging. Email has always allowed us to send messages to more than one person. For good, and often for bad, email has also provided a reply-to-all capability but this has never felt like have a chat with a bunch of friends. One of the reasons for this is that email doesn’t really have a thread to it and doesn’t really allow people to join and to leave the conversation. Modern messaging apps allow group capabilities in different way, but they are all trying to achieve the same thing allowing groups of people to form together for a chat.
Choice may be killing our productivity
Without some thought all of this choice can lead to a drag on productivity.
I was recently in Italy, a country that I love, but my language skills are very poor. Deciding which language we would use and at what level added time to each and every conversation. Yet, this is what we do each and every day when we pick between the various messaging capabilities available to us. I regularly switch from one messaging app to another before I find the person I am wanting to communicate with.
There was time when all messaging was in our mailbox and we could find it there. I’m sure that I’m not the only one who has been sure that a set of messages have been exchanged, but not been able to find them later on because I can’t remember which media was used for the communication.
Messaging between businesses and customers is also complex with organizations needing to be an active presence in every messaging service to make sure that their customers can communicate with them in the way that they choose.
Sending a message doesn’t mean you’ve communicated
So far we’ve only talked about the various messaging capabilities available to us, but we need to think about some wise words from George Bernard Shaw:
“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
Now that we have more choice than ever for sending and receiving messages doesn’t mean that we have got any better at communicating. In some ways communication has got more difficult because we are we need to think about the capabilities of the media that we are using.
Graham Chastney is a Technologist in CSC’s Global Infrastructure Services. He has worked in the arena of workplace technology for over 25 years, starting as a sysprog supporting IBM DISOSS and DEC All-in-1. Latterly Graham has been working with CSC’s customers to help them understand how they exploit the changing world of workplace technology. Graham lives with his family in the United Kingdom.