Thursday, June 12, 2008


Instant messaging vs email

One of our local radio talk show hosts, Brian Lehrer, just had a call-in discussion about whether instant messaging is less distracting than email:

A new study from Ohio State University and the University of California, Irvine says that instant messaging is less distracting than email in the workplace.

What do you use at the office to communicate? Let us know!

I find the premise interesting, because I don’t think of the difference as one of “distraction”. It’s more a question of their having different uses, and different modes of interaction.

I find IM useful to have conversations, interactions that go back and forth more than email. I find IM useful to pose a brief question that’s likely to have a brief and readily obtained answer. That’s stuff we would have done on the phone, but it’s much less of an interruption than a phone call is, and it requires a smaller cognitive investment (it’s easier to fit it into the flow of multi-tasking).

And that’s the aspect that perhaps makes it “less distracting” than email: it emphasizes quick, short messages that don’t pull your cognitive processes away from whatever else you’re doing. If I were to get an instant message while writing this, I’d probably finish this sentence, switch over to the IM window (using the keyboard, not the mouse), respond to the IM, switch back here, and continue writing. My mind would still mostly be on this, and it would re-focus easily.

On the other hand, if the phone should ring in the middle of a sentence, I’d feel obliged to answer it immediately — I think most of us would, though many folks do ignore the phone — even before finishing the current sentence. Even with a brief phone call, it’s likely that my mind would be derailed, and it’d take a few moments for me to say, “OK, where was I?“, and to refocus on what I’m writing.

And instead, if I should get email while I’m writing a sentence here, it’d be an entirely different situation. I wouldn’t pay any attention to it at all. Most likely, I wouldn’t even notice that it arrived, because I’m focused on writing and I don’t use email in that way — email doesn’t interrupt tasks that I’ve mentally labelled as not freely interruptible.

If, though, I were reading the New York Times headlines and email should arrive, I might instantly notice the email and switch to my email program. Reading news headlines is a task that I think of as freely interruptible, and I’d go ahead and take the interruption.

The key points here are

  1. what I use IM and email for,
  2. what expectations the person I’m communicating with has,
  3. how the information is presented to me by the IM and email programs, and
  4. how I handle interruptions to the work I’m doing.

Instant messaging is a perfect channel for having side conversations during conference calls, and I very often use it for that. Conference calls are much more useful when there’s the ability to get a clarification, make a suggestion, or “raise your hand” to the moderator, and IM works far better than email for those things.

There are also certain things I’d prefer to keep in email, mostly because of the way my information is stored and organized today — and this could change, if we made a fundamental change in how we organize things related to what we work on. Significant information that I want to keep, I prefer to have in email. Sure, I have instant messaging session logs, but they tend to be disconnected blasts of conversation, and aren’t usually a place I go to find things. The information in them isn’t catalogued or indexed in any useful way. I’d like to see that change.

So, if you want me to look at a web page because you think I’ll find it of passing interest or you want me to comment on it, sending the URL in an IM is good. But if it’s something I should look at later, when I have some spare time, or if it’s something important that I’ll be keeping for reference, email is better. It’s less ephemeral.

Tools are best used for what they’re best at. You can bang a nail in with a screwdriver... but it’s better to use a hammer.

1 comment:

Thomas J. Brown said...

Wow, bang on. I hadn't ever thought about the differences between IM, e-mail, and phone, but I completely agree with how you broke it down.

One of the things that I particularly like about IM is that I can carry on a conversation with friends (especially ones who don't live in town) throughout the day that doesn't detract from my work. Whenever a new message comes in, I can just switch over to the IM window, reply, and switch back.