I was talking to Irene Greif the other day (she heads the Collaborative User Experience (CUE) Group at IBM Research) about attention management and she made a good point that IM has developed a cultural protocol to ask “do you have a minute?” I agree – in my experience it is pretty common to begin IMs with a polite query or “hi” to verify availability and pauses are usually not considered insulting. That got me thinking how odd it was that at a time when computer users are generally taken to be inconsiderate lunkheads in regards to interrupting other people, a social convention has developed on its own that is both polite and useful.
I would like to see a study on how the cultural conventions around communication technologies emerge and how they evolve. It seems clear to me that some technologies have established rude (or anti-social or interruptive) conventions while others have developed nicer ones. Talkers seem to be intolerant of pauses on cellphone conversations with people driving but IM pauses are fine. E-mail blasts are very common while IM blasts are rare. Probably 80% of the difference is due to technological differences – IM is asynchronous while the cellphone is synchronous so pauses are more tolerable. IM has a smaller window so people keep messages shorter. But I’d be very interested in the 20% or so that is simply due to the cultural norms of the types of people that first get into the technology, the cultural attitudes of the time around responsiveness and formality, and the popular activities these technologies become a part of. My thesis is that our social norms for how we relate to communication technology do evolve, but they are anchored to the people that first evangelized the technology and the time they lived in.
Unfortunately, it seems difficult to change people’s habits once they are established. After getting an unsolicited phone call from a local business yesterday I realized how quiet my evenings have been since a combination of legislation and caller ID sharply decreased the number of dinnertime soliciting interruptions. I just hope something can shape the cultural use of e-mail to avoid the senseless e-mail blasts, spam, and one word “OK” answers.