Conversational Synchrony

This article appeared as my column for Connect Magazine in August 2003.

Teens today are more connected that ever with instant messaging, or IM, having become a staple of teenage life. Recent studies show that 74% of teenagers use IM. Seventeen percent have even used it to break-up with a boyfriend or girlfriend. Kids frequently strike up conversations with their peers on AOL or MSN instead of calling on the telephone. Connectedness is a hallmark of life in the digital age.

Teens aren't the only ones who are connecting using IM. Instant messaging is finding a home in business as well.

  • Employees are using it as a way to ask a quick question of a co-worker or a business partner when a phone call is too much overhead. IM is a perfect 21st century answer to the age-old practice of popping into a co-workers office with a quick question.
  • Business partners are using it for back channel communications during conference calls. In today's high-speed business culture, meetings frequently happen on the telephone with most meeting participants in different locations and a teleconferencing bridge serving as the modern-day answer to the conference room. IM is a great way to carry on important side-bar conversations that used to happen in whispers or passed notes.
  • Geographically dispersed workgroups are using IM to create a sense of workplace community and even coordinate complex tasks by remote teams. I know of a group of engineers who used IM to accomplish sophisticated service upgrades in the middle of the night when the service was lightly loaded. Rather than everyone coming into work, they all gathered in their bathrobes and slippers in front of their computer screens and performed a difficult task using IM.

These kinds of real-time, always-on connections are changing how people think about their workgroups, their friends, and even where they work. I usually work from home and yet I have several people who I work with regularly and friends who I talk to frequently-all over IM.

Viewed as a communication medium, IM can be thought of as a conversational form of email. Rather than sending off an entire message to someone and waiting for them to reply when they get around to it, you write a sentence, get an immediate reply, and then respond in kind. Computer scientists would call this form of communication "synchronous" in contrast to email's asynchronous style. IM can be used to exchange files as well as text making it an immediate form of file sharing.

If you've used IM, you know that it can be more work than a phone call and lacks the subtle nuances that voice can convey. So what explains its huge popularity? I think it comes down to one word: multitasking. When I call someone on the telephone, the conversation if rich, full and, as a result, requires most of my attention. IM brings conversation down to the basics. People tend to stick to the topic and say just what needs to be said. The result is that I can get answers to questions, schedule appointments, and catch up on the news in an IM session with a co-worker or friend and be doing something else at the same time. Its not unusual for me to have two different IM conversations going while I answer email or use the Web.

I have a friend named Kevin who loves conferencing other people into phone calls when you're on the phone with him. If you ask him a question he can't answer, he says “hold on” and a few seconds later, he's got someone on the line with the answer. It surprisingly effective for getting things moving and short-circuiting the let-me-get-back-to-you delays that plague complicated transactions. Even so, Kevin is the only person I know who does this. Not so with IM. IM sessions with multiple parties are easy to use and people do it all the time.

Another great feature of IM is instant file sharing. You can send across a picture or a spreadsheet as easy as you can ask a question. This gives IM a big advantage over telephone conversations. We've all had phone conversations where we sent someone a file on email and they can't find it or it doesn't come through. IM ends that dance because the conversation and the file sharing are integrated into the same tool.

Lots of email messages can be answered with a short sentence, but that answer begats another question. Short interactive conversations are a lot of overhead on email. One of the features I love about the Mac is the integration between the email and IM clients. When I read email, a little green ball appears next to any message where the sender can be reached on IM right now. Instead of dashing off a quick answer with email, I often just IM the sender and answer them right on the spot. That way, if they've got any additional questions or need clarification, we can take care of it sooner rather than later.

Its clear that I'm a fan. But a number of companies write IM off as a toy, fine for recreation, but lacking any use in more serious pursuits. Consequently, they've taken steps to ban it from the workplace. I've had IM friends who suddenly drop out of site. When I ask why, they frequently say they've taken a new job with an employer who is not "IM friendly" and blocks its use.

With all my enthusiasm, there are some legitimate reasons for concern: IM conversations are not encrypted and may travel outside the corporate firewall. In addition, easy file sharing can be just one more, unprotected avenue for viruses to invade the workplace. Some companies may need to log certain conversations for regulatory compliance. These are real issues, but they can all be solved with IM systems designed for commercial deployment and some reasonable policies.

Internet use has skyrocketed because the Internet is more than a networking technology-it's a place for people to connect and form communities. Some of these connections are short-lived and some last years. IM is a great example of how the Internet is allowing us to connect in whole new ways to great effect.

Phillip J. Windley is a technology writer, speaker, and consultant. Windley writes a weblog on enterprise computing at Contact him at

Last Modified: Friday, 31-Dec-2004 21:28:38 UTC