Why Instant Messaging Beats other Communication Forms

I often hear people telling others to “get off your butt and go talk to the person face-to-face,” as if face-to-face communication is the silver bullet of all communication forms. Recently, I installed a jabber server at work, and a few of us software developers have been using it to collaborate on our software project. Let me tell you why it’s better than at least 3 other communication mediums: phones, face-to-face, and email.

Instant Messaging Beats Phones

When you call me on my office phone, it forces me to stop what I am doing and focus about 90% of my attention on your phone call, at this very instant. If I choose to ignore the phone, it rings at least 4 times, and each time I feel a wave of anxiety pass over me, because I know you’ll probably come find me face-to-face in a few minutes (more on that later). Lastly, when you call me I have to turn off my music. Music helps me tune out other distractions, so please don’t make me turn it off.

On the other hand, when you send me an IM (instant message), I am free to choose how much attention I want to give you, and I don’t have to respond right away. I can also leave my music running, so psychologically I have less context switching to do. I can wait to respond until I’m done writing a section of code. That way I don’t have to spend any time trying to remember what I was working on before you called. If I see that the IM is a simple yes/no question, I can respond right away with “yes” or “no” and move on. I don’t have to go through the pleasantries of saying “how are you” or “this is he” or “that sounds good” on the phone, followed by the pleasantries of “ok, good bye” or “thanks, see ya later”, etc. In fact, while I am writing this very article, I have answered about 10 IM’s, and it hasn’t interfered with the flow of my writing at all. If I had received 10 phone calls, however, I would have never made it past the title. What’s really great is that I only had to give about 25% of my attention to the IM conversations. That is until half way through the conversation when my co-worker had a really good idea; so good, in fact, that I stopped writing this article for a few minutes to schedule a meeting to talk about it. All this with no interrupting ring tones!

Instant Messaging Beats Face-to-Face

When you come into my office to talk to me, not only do I have to stop what I am doing immediately, but I have to give you eye-contact. This interrupts my work flow big time, because I can’t even passively monitor the program that I have running (let alone actively type code), for fear that you will think I’m rude. What’s more, I can’t take my eyes off you for the entire time you’re in my office, for fear that you’ll steal something (just kidding). Face-to-face conversations almost always degenerate into something other than what was originally intended, perhaps a personal conversation about the past weekend or something else. Lastly, it can disturb my office mate (we sit two to an office), causing double distraction. IM’s don’t pose any of these problems.

Instant Messaging Beats Email

Email is the most passive form of communication. It doesn’t interrupt me, and it doesn’t require immediate attention. You may be wondering at this point why IM’s are any better. Email takes passive communication to the extreme, so extreme in fact that many people never get around to answering emails. If I had a nickel for every unanswered email in my co-workers’ inboxes, I would be a very wealthy man. This leads us to the problem: When I send an email inquiry to a co-worker, I can’t count on getting a response in a timely matter, or even at all! When I send an IM, I can usually tell right away if they got it because my IM program tells me when they are typing a response. I also know if they will receive it because I can see if they are online or not. Email gives neither of these responses. I also know immediately that when I get an IM, it was meant for me. Whereas I get lots of email every day that is meant for the whole company or for an entire department, which may or may not have any relevance to me at all. My email client just tells me I have mail in the system tray, and without opening it to read all the messages, I can’t know quickly who it’s from or whether it was even intended for me at all.

There’s an Exception to Every Rule

Don’t get me wrong. Face-to-face conversation has its place, as does the phone and email. I would not recommend, for example, using an instant message to ask for a raise. If you absolutely need 100% of your co-worker’s attention, go visit him in person. Also, if you need to pose a question to several people at once, and they all need to participate in the discussion, email may be better (side note: consider IRC for this).

For the last week, I spent about 40 hours locked in a conference room with two other software engineers working on a project. I thought we would be very productive, but our productivity really improved when we separated into our own offices and started using IM. I can only conclude this: Instant Messaging is great for software development, so try it out if you haven’t already (I recommend OpenFire as a good Jabber server).

So go ahead, stay in your seat. Don’t go interrupt your co-worker unless you’re pretty confident that what you’ve got to say to them is worth their entire attention. Might I suggest that you IM them to ask permission first? That’s what I do.

6 comments to “Why Instant Messaging Beats other Communication Forms”

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  1. Dave, I love it, I agree spot on 100% as well. I hate phones for the constant interruption and the need to answer and pay attention right away.

    Great stuff.

  2. Dave,

    You forgot one other form of communication. Communication via blogs. There is something very gratifying about communicating with someone via his blog when you’re sitting 5 feet away from him. It’s like impersonal++.


  3. It’s even better knowing that the person sitting 5 feet away is whiling his days away writing lame blog articles when he should be working on your project…

  4. http://wryun says: -#1

    NOTED! This is a good post.

  5. http://Shannon says: -#1

    IM is so totally abused in the workplace. It is the perfect example of an instant gratification society. If I have a question about a particular issue, I just IM the person who knows the most about that subject rather than trying to figure out the answer on my own. Instant access to have my question answered for me…no waiting! However, what I don’t know is that the person on the other end was in the middle of working on some complex issue and the flashing icon for the IM has now pulled his attention off of what he was doing to read my IM. I also don’t know that 5 other people have IM’d that person in the last three minutes. So, now there is no chance that the person can focus on his complex task so it gets dropped temporarily. Then, once all of the seemingly trivial questions have been answered, that person tries to wrap his mind back around what he was originally trying to work on and the bombardment of IM’s begins again. So, it gets dropped……repeatedly. This results in poor productivity. No one wants to wait for an email to be answered at the person’s convenience. They want their answers now. They don’t want to have to do research on their own because it takes up too much of their own time. Little thought is put into how much time you are stealing from the person receiving your IM. You simply hijack his work session for your own purposes. IM stands for Instant Message but what it should really stand for is Interrupt Me because that’s what you’re doing.

  6. Shannon, good point. I think this may be the place for chat rooms.