Awareness of Presence - Good or Bad Thing in a Working Tool?

Imagine a professionally successful Baby Boomer who works for a higher education institution and who probably got their start in information technology working with punch cards or early terminals, some of their early work was probably in programming. This is the kind of person who checks their e-mail twice a day - once in the morning and once in the afternoon, and also checks and answers voice mail on schedule. They learned early on that the best way for them to be productive is to shut out the rest of the world and focus, to concentrate on the task at hand.

This same person is in a position of decision making about whether to support or suppress what may well be the preferred method of communication among Americans who are under the age of 21 - instant messaging? Yikes. That would be like me having the power to decide that amusement parks don't need roller coaster rides and, in fact, that amusement parks needn't really even exist, despite the fact that many people enjoy them and that they are a thriving, valid industry.

Did I tell you that a completely fail to comprehend what others enjoy from roller coaster rides?

From here, I could rant a bit about how we need to be careful not to shut down someone else's favorite tool, or not to make possibly invalid judgments about their productivity. I could go on about how one of the very simplest ways to make an IT staffer's job easier is to tightly control what our users can do, to limit their choices based on our own needs and working styles and assumptions, and about how wrong that would be.

But instead, briefing up on this earlier, I came across some pretty interesting articles and found that there are academicians who are studying up on instant messaging and that they have a vocabulary that provides words and phrases for some of what I have perceived in IM. It's useful to have a common vocabulary about things, so the gist of my piece this week is to share a few important words or phrases that can be used to discuss the qualities of instant messaging and perhaps make discussion about it more productive.

To be perfectly frank, I really like and enjoy instant messaging and find it perhaps my most useful working tool, especially in light of the spam epidemic that is creating chaos in my in box. So, if you're a cranky old guy who came up through the ranks via programming and you're inclined to want to just shut off instant messaging in the dorms . . . don't read this . . . let the folks who agree with me learn the words and phrases that might just make their next argument with you more persuasive.

My favorite paper from the literature, so far, is one called "Theorizing the Unintended Consequences of Instant Messaging for Worker Productivity," by a couple of researchers at Case Western Reserve University. (A link to that PDF is available as a reference, below.) Julie Rennecker and Lindsey Godwin, draw from the works of others and from their own creativity and describe some features of IM as follows.

IM has presence awareness - this means that when you are running IM there is a presence perceivable to you of "others" who are available to you. Your buddy list tells you who is online, whether they are idle or away, and more. You can use this to estimate how likely it is you can make contact with someone. Whenever you are online and IM is turned on, you are part of the social swarm.

IM has pop-up recipient notification - it's kind of like a telephone that's in your face, has caller ID, and in addition, when it comes on you can already see, instantly what the conversation's going to be about.

IM has within-medium polychronic communication - polychromic communication means multiple communications going on at once, which we often do in other media, like listening to NPR on Saturday morning while chatting with your partner in the kitchen. Unlike jumping back and forth between two conversations on a single telephone with multiple lines however, IM allows you to view and juggle many discussions in the single medium. (My own personal record is seven current meaningful IM chats at a single time.)

IM has silent interactivity - that means that except for the clicking of the keyboard, it's relatively non-obtrusive to other things going on, like, say, a relatively boring staff meeting. (Although you quickly come to recognize the bursts of chattering fingers with a rhythm that tells you IM is happening.) Not only can you ask an assistant to bring you the document that you need but forgot to bring to a meeting, without interrupting the meeting and admitting that you forgot the document, you and one or two others can strategically analyze and even possible control the flow of a group discussion by "passing notes" via IM. (Been there, done that.)

IM has ephemeral transcripting - by this the authors mean that under ordinary usage there is no permanent transcript or record of the conversation. This is changing, with newer versions, especially of enterprise IM, that offer automatic recording and logging, but it's still part of the nature of IM to be ephemeral. I recall the first time I saw my own "chat" recorded by having been cut and pasted into someone else's e-mail message. And almost daily I forget and close a window that contained a phone number or an e-mail address someone had shared with me in IM, and have to ask them for it again.

So, with these five characteristics of IM, we have some terms for our ongoing conversations about it. I recommend reading the Rennecker and Godwin article, even though I disagree with their overall findings. Another article to read that discusses the need for "listening to the learner" about what learning technologies a learner wants is "The Impact of Technologies on Learning," by Kimberly Gustafson. A link to a PDF of that article, published online especially for readers of this column, is also referenced below.

I think we're just beginning, still, to see the tip of that proverbial iceberg with regard to transformation of our working and learning technologies. I saw a news item last week, and of course I've lost the reference, where two European cities each have a virtual communications kiosk. Users in each city can stand in front of the kiosk and see and hear each other as though the other was just "on the other side" of the apparently mirrored surface of the kiosk. They can then communicate with full audio and visual cues as though each is "present" in the other's space. That reminds me just a little bit of the "presence awareness" of IM, and I see a tantalizing glimpse in there of a floating presence that hovers around me and moves with me wherever I go in the future, linking me upon demand to anyone and any information, at any time.

I know, I know, there will be readers who say that "Working with an open instant messenger window is like working while riding a roller coaster." To them I say, "If that excites you, cool, at least as long as you get your work done. You ride the roller coaster and I'll IM!"
Gustafson, Kimberly 2004 "The Impact of Technologies on Learning," Planning for Higher Education, 32:2, December 2003-February 2004, pp. 37-43.
Rennecker, Julie and Lindsey Godwin 2003 "Theorizing the Unintended Consequences of Instant Messaging for Worker Productivity," Sprouts: Working Papers on Information Environments. Systems and organizations, Vol. 3, Summer.

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