why_i_do_not_like_im(37) Language: English

Why I do not like Chat/Instant Messaging


This is an attempt to formulate my very personal opinion about why I do not use (nor like to use) instant messaging aka. chat aka. Whatsapp (although the latter is only a common and specific instance of the former).

Means of Digital Communication

For the purpose of this text, at least the following means of digital communication are relevant:

Instant Messaging aka. Chat, e. g. Whatsapp
Instant messaging services allow two or more users to send messages to a chat which is a list of messages sent by users. Instant messaging is instant because it is expected to deliver a message quickly. Instant messaging clients often display if a recipient is online or offline (so-called status) and is designed to allow people to communicate interactively as well as asynchronously. Modern chat softwares often include telephony capabilities and most instant messaging systems are incompatible with each other, the XMPP protocol being one of the few execptions. Being incompatible, some instant messaging protocols provide unique features not seen elsewhere e. g. high level of anonymity, decentralization or simple means of finding potential contacts.
Electronic mail is similar to regular mail: Initial messages often follow the same style with an opening, content and then the name of the author. E-mail usually has a subject and the same e-mail can be sent to multiple recipients. Follow-up messages often include parts (or the whole) original content as to provide context. E-mail is sent to addresses of form username@server where server is any computer accepting mail for users. This is why e-mail is a decentralized service. Additionally, e-mail usually arrives quickly but not as quickly as instant messages and is thus designed to be used asynchronously. Basic text messages are compatible across many e-mail clients but more advanced features like HTML messages, encryption or maling list handling and threading are not available with all clients (nor always needed).
Unlike instant messaging or e-mail, telephony is audio-based and real-time, i. e. synchronous communication between two (or more) people. Unlike with instant messaging ore e-mail, it is expected that only one person talks at a time. Telephony can also use traditional analog means of transmission. Telephony systems are one of the most compatible pieces of technology available allowing about a hundred years old hardware as well as the latest smartphone to talk to each other due to clever handling on the provider side.

None of these are expensive today and none of these are really bound to a specific device making all of these available to a wide audience.

Problems with Digitally written Communication

Some problems are common to all digitally written communication.

The semantics of a text is rarely exactly clear. Context is needed to make text meaningful. With textual communication the whole context of emotion is often missing and the rest of the context is limited to what was written before.
Text messages are bad at transmitting emotions. To mitigate this to some extent, people have invented smileys and emoticons which can give text a happy or sad connotation and thus make its meaning more clear. In formal contexts, however, it is often not exactly clear how many smileys or emoticons one should use because it might seem childish to add too many of them yet it might seem hard or rude to use too few.
Time for writing
Writing text is a pretty slow means of expression. Explaining complex matters in a written fashion takes a lot of time and often also needs a lot of text.
Time for reading
While many people read quickly, especially in these modern times, there is still a lot of time needed to resolve ambiguity and find out what a given message is actually about. The problem here is not so much with a single e-mail or chat message received from a friend but always emerges in two similar situations: The first situation is a sort of ongoing discussion by at least two other people where one is joined later e. g. by being invited to a chat or CC-ed in an e-mail. Due to the different people involved and useless descriptions like Please have a look into this... or This problem is urgent, see below or even just FYI, it becomes difficult to actually extract (1) what needs to be done, (2) what has actually already been done and (3) whom to contact for more information. The second situation happens whenever one has been cut off textual communication for some amount of time. What if one were to only rarely look at the communication? One might be faced with a lot of similarly contentless messages like those mentioned in the previous situation and keeping track of what the actual status is now might become very hard to determine.
When to reply
With the asynchronous nature of all text messaging, it sometimes remains unclear when to reply best. Consider you getting an e-mail which should have a file attached but has not. Do you ask the sender to submit the file or do you rather wait for him to notice that he has forgotten to attach the file? How long should you wait? The same issue can arise in instant messaging scenarios: Suppose someone sends you an unspecific question like Do you have time to meet? (This is lacking a description about what to meet for and it is lacking an interval of time the author would like to meet with, it is lacking for how long one would like to meet etc). With that text it might happen that the author of the question quickly sends another message afterwards explaining the subject. Yet this need not happen leaving one to guess or ask back.
Expectations: Imposing work on others
With digitally written text communication, senders expect their texts to be read and processed quickly. In a way, this forces every reader to accept work from every sender at any time: Not reading messages quickly, one can quickly lose track of e. g. the details of a planned event or the results of some sort of poll (e. g. who does what?-type questions where one gets to do the worst if one replies too late). Many senders expect receivers to be able to react to updates quickly enough to e. g. re-schedule an event on the same day or cancel it completely.
Planning ahead of Time
With the results from the previous point, it becomes clear that planning ahead of time becomes impossible: If it is possible to make or cancel an appointment just minutes before it happens, one can never be sure how much time one will have at a given day.
To provide the required speed, pepole often get live notifications whenever they receive a message. Together with the impossibility to be sure what will be done at what time, it becomes very difficult to concentrate on a subject for a longer amount of time, because notifications and messages are likely to arrive just while one is concentrating on something else.
To make this even worse, there are also unnecessary messages, often called spam. While there is a lot of spam from untrusted people when e. g. one's e-mail address is public, there is also spam from people one likes and knows in the context of chat, because there people often share content (e. g. humor) of questionable usefulness. While that case may seem similar to spoken chatting, the sender cannot as easily determine if the receiver is trying to concentrate at that time or ready to chat. Even if status codes like Occupied – do not disturb or similar are implemented, for textual messages with multiple receivers, it is often not feasible (nor wanted) to check that none of the recipients is occupied.

No Instant Messaging

Many of the issues mentioned before, relate to timing of the messages to some extent. With instant messaging, times between messages tend to become shorter making the issues worse. Additionally, it becomes more and more difficult to distinguish between what is spam and what is not spam because it is easy for known and trusted senders to send unnecessary, yet not strictly unwanted messages which means the problems mentioned still increase but without being noticed that strongly.

An issue specific to instant messaging is the idea of mobile/online use. Where some places of work also expect quick replies to e-mail, instant messaging is often used on mobile devices allowing receivers to stay online for the newest messages all day and making it possible to propose events without further preliminary thought or preparation.

Summarizing these findings, current use of instant messaging greatly disrupts the ability to concentrate and getting work done efficiently in terms of throughput (not latency).

One might argue that life is not all work, yet there are only those two alternatives in this context:

  1. Communication is actually the goal. In this case, one might very well just call people by phone. Talking to groups is also possible with telephony and it is always more interactive and pleasant (e. g. in terms of communicating emotions) to talk to people more directly. Meeting physically is even better ☺
  2. Communication is not the goal. In this case, it seems best to minimize the effort for communication. While it might seem that writing a short instant message is minimal by its size and time to write, it is definitely not the minimum effort taking the receiver into account: A receiver getting an instant message needs to cancel whatever he or she was doing, process the message (e. g. by replying etc.) and then resume (or not resume) the previous activity. There are few activities so thoughtless that they can be resumed in zero time – for most things, one needs some time to get back to whatever one was doing. Due to the asynchronous nature of instant messages and their often incomplete content needing further extension later (see previous points), these times may occur very often thus causing a lot of time to be effectively lost with getting back to activities on the receiver's side.

All the problems mentioned here are not specific to technology. It seems very well possible to use all of the means of communication sensible e. g. by sending messages or calling very rarely and then with all the necessary information at once as to keep the number interruptions minimal. Yet in practice, people think least about these issues with chat because it is very easy to add any missing details later and chat software does not encourage users to prepare their message thoroughly before sending it.

As an example, one can see this with the very small detail of how the ENTER key is handled in most chat software: Whenever ENTER is hit, the current message is sent. Inserting a newline inside a message (i. e. something one likely does when thinking before sending), is often more difficult than sending requiring a shortcut like SHIFTENTER to be pressed instead.

For most people it seems difficult to understand all the implications their spammy chat messages may have and as a result, it so far still seems best to avoid chat as much as possible. This is true for both work and free time: For work, one is likely to get more stress due to the fact that work needs to be finished in the time remaining after all the interruptions from chat (also partially applies to e-mail). For free time, there is probably not more stress, still the interruptions from chat or e-mail cause free time to shrink.

Improving the Situation

A lot of insight can be gained from the people who receive a lot of (non-spammy) e-mails with respect to the correct usage of e-mail whenever one e. g. asks for help or similar. Two notable sources of information for these special cases include the Debian Mailing List Code of Conduct and Smart Questions.

Without any sort of priorization, nor claiming completeness, here are some very basic ideas on how to improve written communication which partially overlap with the links mentioned but also contain some other ideas:

  • Avoid unnecessary messages: Do not write, if you do not have anything useful to say for all receivers of the message. If what you say is useful for just part of the group, only write to that part of the group.
  • Talk to as few people as possible at a time (unless it is a scheduled event explicitly organized for the purpose).
  • Write whole messages in form and content: Prefer to give complete sentences and use abbreviations sparingly. Be explicit about tasks you impose on others and questions you want to be answered from them. Provide all the necessary information and if it is not available at the time, think twice and only write if (1) the incomplete information is already very useful for the receiver and (2) the missing information is very difficult to determine within some reasonable time limit. Do not excuse this by your current location or travel situation unless you are away for a very long time. (In that case, consider preparing your trip good enough to not only be able to provide incomplete information)
  • Use status codes only for relevant information. Be sure that everyone involved understands their semantics or is likely to guess right.
  • Prefer technical measures over organizational. This is a very basic concept also applying to worker safety. In the context of text messaging it might be interpreted as follows. If your software provides some useful means of organization, use it. Also note that not all technology is always useful. There are probably two interesting examples for e-mail: One feature rarely used these days is send return receipt – with that function (and appropriate software), a receiver may explicitly tell you by just the click of a button that he or she has received your message without any need to write an extra e-mail. Beware that this is never useful for newsletters or other kind of non-personal e-mail because it is very sensible for people to not use this feature if they believe their activity is tracked by this. Another feature which is very rarely useful is HTML mail: There are numerous security and privacy related issues with it and adding color to e-mail (or differences in font sizes etc.) often makes reading and writing such e-mails more difficult.
  • Use encryption to enhance privacy whenever feasible. It is not necessary that you have to hide something now. The day you want to hide something, only a lot of previously encrypted communication prevents those you want to hide the message from from becoming suspicious of the one encrypted message.
  • Use few means of communication and understand their implications. Today, one might easily end up with four different chat applications, multiple e-mail accounts and clients, a landline and mobile phone numbers and also multiple devices, each of which can use a subset of the means of communication. While synchronization across devices is getting better and better, it is still a concern especially if one tries not to share all communication with a few central companies like Google or Facebook. Remember that although Whatsapp messges are encrypted with state of the art technology, one would likely not notice an upgrade which (once installed) removes encryption for just one user's communication. The security of encryption always depends on the trustworthieness of the software it is performed with and thus also on the origin of the software.

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