R U Receiving Me?

I've got an interesting relationship with my father. He told me recently that if it wasn't for email, we probably wouldn't have much of a relationship at all. He's probably right. We've recenly begun Instant Messaging, which is a very different thing. So what stands out to me is the fundamental differences between the way we communicate in three different mediums; email, IM, and f2f (face to face :-).

While we're very different people, we do share a few very similar interests and they seem to be the seed from which we've grown. One thing we have in common is curiosity and thirst for knowledge. (And we're both very intelligent, if I do say so myself ;-). This has lead us to generate massive email conversations on topics ranging from human behaviour to fractal geometry, and indeed, the meaning of life.

Sometimes there are months with no contact at all, but when we do begin something, I expect pages and pages of data to be shuffled back and forth. In fact, even on the rare occasion where we are f2f, we verbally shuffle massive amounts of data back and forth, entering a sort of hack mode, often to the disappointment of others desiring attention in our general vicinity. When left alone, we can easily burn several hours and not even realize it.

Just recently my father has gotten into Instant Messaging. Why has he never used IM before? I'm not sure. No use for it I guess. He's a pretty oldskool hacker type (See this link for a good definition of what a hacker really is), so oldskool, he used to build logic gates out of individual transistors for computers that took up whole floors of office buildings. He's used to message boards and such, more than IM.

Now though, I bump into him every couple days in my IM client and we end up trying to talk about something. Trying, is the key word here.

With email, the process is very slow. I never thought I'd ever call email slow but it was inevitable the way technology keeps getting smaller and faster. So because of the "slowness" of email, we have time to read things over carefully and contemplate what is being said. We can let the ideas sink in a little and then we can take our time to formulate a response to them. Our process was usually to go through the email and reply to each idea as we came to it, thus creating a type of very detailed conversation in which we could expound upon our deepest philosophes of why we have a preference for certain beers. This idea, reply, idea, reply technique lead us on many exciting intellectual tangents, many of which still beg for clarification but will never be satisfied.

One dangerous aspect of email, and any short form of written communication, is that it's often difficult to set the tone unless you write technically and very well. So if you venture into personal or emotionally sensitive areas of conversation it's quite easy to accidently offend or confuse people. Because there is no "bio-feedback" involved like there is in f2f communication, the READER will often be projecting his own mood or assumptions into the text, causing misunderstanding.

With f2f communication you have speed but it's more of a serial connection, where you can only follow one line of thought at a time. This is the opposite to the described form of email conversation, where many thoughts and ideas run in parallel, split off in tangents from the original message. Most importantly, you have bio-feedback in f2f. Wether you're conscious of it or not, you are sending and receiving massive amounts of data non verbally that contributes to the entire communication. Skilled communicators use this to the fullest extent and can ellicit various responses or control the mood of the interaction.

F2f is by far the richest communication method there is. (Short of tantric sex I suppose but I'm only guessing there ;-) I think it explains why there is so much use of "smilies" or "emoticons" in text based interaction, especially IM. It's an attempt to express in a symbol what can't be said in text.

IM falls very short of rich communication though. My father and I seem to trip over it but maybe because we're trying to say too much. Typing speed plays a factor, as well as the multi tasking and other distractions that go on. I won't get into "A.D.D.", except to say, that if you're still reading this, I'm honored a surprised. :-P

However, I've had some big and long conversations with people in IM. If you get into it with a fast typer who has a clear idea of what they want to say it has some similarities to f2f, with a poor graphical substitute for bio-feedback.

Another thing I find interesting about IM is that you don't necessarilly HAVE to speak to anyone just because they're on. I'm just happy to know the people in my life are "there", when I log on, so I could talk to them if I felt like it. They're "close", even though they may be on the other side of the world.

Then there are times like now, when I look at my contact list and realize everyone has enough sense to go to bed at a decent time, except me.

Overall, the three have their own strengths and weaknesses, geography being the biggest one for f2f, sometimes you just can't be there. I've realized that just as there are good and bad verbal communicators, there are also good and bad email and IM communicators.

My biggest pet peeve; Sending one giant block of text in an email. Please, if you're going to send me an email, at least seperate your points into paragraphs. If you do that, I'll let the run-on sentences slide.

Happy communicating!