Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Multiple IM Conversations and Judgments

A question that popped into my head when responding to therese's comment...

Does it bother you if you're having a conversation with someone else and they're not attentive to the conversation becasue you think they're having a conversation with someone else. This can often be signaled explicitly by mis-aimed interlocutions (i.e. you're having a conversation with someone about your bad day and they respond by mistake in your window to a conversation they're having with someone else in another window). Do we see this as acceptable, or do we think that our interlocutor isn't engagaed and focused on our conversation? Do we ignore these things?

To what extent do we expect to be the sole focus of attention during IM interactions (in diadic conversations)? In FTF settings, this lack of focus would normally be construed as "rude", where one person would in essence be having a conversation with 2 people at one time. Does this "rudeness" transfer to IM? Do people feel guilty about talking to 2 people at once, when one of the conversations is "important" (dealing with personal problems, exposing some weakness, etc.) Do we demand the attention of our interlocutors, or do we realize that IM is in fact different than FTF in this regard?

I love this topic. (I love every topic, so that doesn't really say much, but anyway...)

I'm just going to talk from personal experience here, anecdotally: I get annoyed when I think someone is not focusing on my conversation with them, but only if I'm currently focused on my conversation with them. This counts for IM conversations where someone's responses are lagging and I think they're doing another IM or doing anything else online; it also counts for phone conversations where I can hear people typing in the background (!). However, I fully know that there are times when *I* am not fully engaged in my IM conversations (and phone too, but let's just talk IM now) because I'm working, etc.

Generally, I'm engaged and therefore expect engagement when I initiate the conversation - because it's at a time when *I'm* ready to talk, or have something specific to talk about. This is unfair, because I have no way of gauging how available my potential interlocutors are, and shouldn't expect that they have all the time to spare; meanwhile getting irked that they IM me when I don't have the time to constantly interact with them.

This is the sort of thing that away messages are meant to filter against, I suppose; you specify just how "away" you are (or that you're not away at all) and people can judge the appropriateness of contacting you. In MSN, you can say you're "busy" or "out to lunch," whatever that means, but you get the idea. I doubt these functions actually work to preempt conflicting expectations, but they're partly designed with that kind of conflict in mind.

Also, if IM really is becoming something of a "background" activity, expectations for synchronicity and expectations for attention would be two sides of the same coin, with said coin becoming less and less valued.

As for "X is typing," I actually think it introduces more conversational complications than it solves. What's its function supposed to be? To increase feelings of synchronicity because you know when someone is ABOUT to say something? Except it's no guarantee, as you pointed out Josh. And when I see the scenario you mentioned, I get inordinately curious about what WAS going to be said. It creates this weird anticipation/anxiety that I don't think is present in F2F, at least not as consciously.

Hillary Bays is doing a project in France (have I mentioned this? She was at AoIR, and I still haven't done my thorough roundup posts...) where they videotape and screenshot every moment of people's IMing. I told her: I'd love to see data on how much people delete whole comments they've written, and what the reason/ing seems to be for it. And, does the interlocutor mention it at all? Fascinating.
just to add my own (kind of embarassing) anecdote...

when i have to use the bathroom when i'm engaged in a heated IM convo, i literally *run* to the bathroom and *run* back because i feel like i'm abandoning the conversation. similarly, if i need a beer, i run throughthe house to the kitchen, and then run back to the computer. i feel like if i need to be focused on the conversation, and that at times, "brb" or "afk" isn't appropriate.

for instance, i had a friend telling me about some "daddy problems" (i.e. was going to become a daddy when he didn't really have any plans to become a daddy). just as he's telling me this and getting into the story of how this kind of thing could have occured, i was struck short and had to get to the can. to me, it wasn't appropriate to say "hold on a minute buddy, i need to take a leak". it seems that this appropriateness is connected to FTF interactions where i would never dream of breaking into a converstion like that with "uh, hold up a sec". i would wait until a more appropriate time, and then excuse myself.
Re the f2f patterning in IM conversations, I believe it’s very much a question of conventions. Beginner users of IM will probably be more concerned with deviating from the f2f (or maybe rather telephone) norms than more accustomed ones. The problem, then, is that different groups using the same medium might develop different conventions, so when conversing with new contacts it will be difficult to know what their expectations are.

I see as one of the greatest advantages of IM that it doesn't demand the same level of focused attention, and therefore it is well suited for the multifaceted communicative situations that are so common today. Personally I don't get annoyed if the person at the other end is not responding, unless, as I said, I see that he/she has started typing.

You're bringing up lots of interesting things here, but unfortunately my attention needs to be elsewhere at the moment...
i haven't had an online conversation that was free of other distractions in years. i compensate by never starting conversations, and i can't see this trend ending anytime before i get a dissertation written. i also love that josh makes the mad bathroom dash - to be honest, i haven't said 'brb' or something similar since i was a wee teen. unlike josh, unless i'm really engaged in the conversation, i take my sweet time getting back to the message box.

i think this makes me a bad IMer. thank god no one here has my screen name.

therese's probably right that these different approaches to speech are being shaped in part by experience with the medium, but i think it goes a little beyond experience and touches upon actual involvement and motivation in a way. i was much more conscious with my instant messages when i was more active online, i.e. a geek with geek friends in a geek world. i'm no less proficient, and arguably no less the geek, but more on the outskirts of things in the online - what wengner might call a peripheral member in the larger online community of practice. this is especially weird considering that the conversations i shirk online are with people that i have properly structured conversations with offline.

to build upon ideas mentioned here, i think the option of various messaging programs to keep up an away message is a feature that shouldn't be skipped out on in considering these kinds of things, and i think the buddy list is just as relevant. they both completely change the conversational dynamic (i've seen a slew of conversations that lack formal adjacency pair greetings because of these factors, and i've seen completely asynchronous communication happening over an IM) in ways that are completely different from the 'your buddy is typing' message. i'd LOVE to see hillary bays' data in considering that, by the way.
Strangely enough, this conversation reminds me a lot of an analysis of rules of interactions in Kenya and Kalahari that I've read this summer (it was a chapter of Michael Moerman and Nomura Masaichi's "Culture Embodied", by a certain Koti Kitamura). Two cultures had very opposite views on the level of attention you're supposed to show and ask during a face-to-face conversation. The Kalaharian San often seeming to ignore each other, or to get involved in multiple conversations at the same time. It didn't strike me then, but there's something quite MSNish about all this.

Anyway, IM isn't just a tool of communication (like the phone). It is mostly, I'd say, about potential communication. Being logged on, or even having an opened window, doesn't force you to fill the silences like you would do on the phone. It doesn't necessarily involve you. It just makes you present, and somewhat disponible, but the rythm of the exchanges define how free you are. It doesn't matter much if the lag comes from your parallel work, your cooking, your minesweeper or another conversation. There is a two-ways adaptation, and seldom any question asked (probably for different reasons depending on your level of intimacy).

I think the contexts where full disponibility and quick answers are truly required aren't the norm. I can only think of first conversations (where the tempo is used to define the mutual interest), crisis situations (high priority subjects, of felt as such by one of the users), rare contacts (maximizing the available time, similar to phone convos), and intimist convos (typically, showing total disponibility to the significant other). The fact a conversation pops up at any time, middle in any invisible activity, makes the casual conversation quite San-ish in practice : you keep a stance that allows you to deny how much attention you originally expected. You also protect yourself from any offense by not making yourself able to judge how unimportant is the interlocutor's other activity.

In fact, letting the other person assume you're half busy (even with a 3rd person) is even a valid strategy to justify your lack of interest. In face to face, being gratuitously distracted may be more easily forgiven than being involved in another activity. On IM, I'd say it's the contrary.

But just to illustrate what I meant with the non-involving aspect of MSN, a friend of mine has been using the MSN voice feature to stay in permanent vocal contact with a friend of his. All day long, they could hear each other's activity, without listening to it, and without more than occasional comments. MSN voice in this case, and even more, I believe, MSN text windows, are probably closer to passive television than to phone communication. Hence a very big flexibility in feedback expectation and disponibility. That, of course, can surprise new users coming from other communication medias...
it's an interesting comparison, to be sure.

i think it's worth mentioning that the status of an instant message as potential communication changes somewhat once you have an opened window - this might be a generalization, but engaging in a conversation still grants some sort of obligation to talk, doesn't it? i don't think that this is the case if you don't respond, or to a greater extend, if you have an away message of set.

and that's a great list of frames that might call for a greater responsibility to one's interlocutor, by the way!
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