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Are You Going To Answer That?

A reader responding to my most recent blog about a user survey and the future of e-mail brought up an interesting point about the nature of always-on communication technology. He said his life pattern had changed once he started using his Blackberry device, and that he felt somehow more compelled to read e-mail on his Blackberry the moment it is received, akin to the urgency of answering a mobile phone. He ended with a lament that he and his associates spend more time looking at the device and less time in direct personal interaction. Even "Good Morning" greetings around the office are handled via IM.

It's a common lament about technology in general and, of course, we always have a choice to respond immediately or not to any communication. But some media are just more compelling. Back in the good ol' days before answering machines, most people felt fairly compelled to answer the ring of a telephone, and auditory signals are still very compelling (although the "You've Got Mail" thing grew tiresome pretty fast). If you didn't answer the ring, you didn't know who was calling. There was always a little mystery. Today, in our always-on, constantly connected world, that feeling of being compelled seems to be largely a function of a) the newness of the medium and b) the level of exclusivity you can exert on the environment (which is partially a function of price). Something always comes along soon that is more compelling and sooner or later it's cheap and pervasive enough that the entire planet can find you. And that makes the existing message medium less compelling. Cases in point:1. When fax machines first started showing up in offices and someone received a fax, it was rushed to their office because it must be pretty darn important if it couldn't wait to go in the mail. A couple years down the road, your faxes ended up in your inbox with your mail.

2. Ditto with e-mail, but it happened in two stages. When e-mail was used primarily on corporate networks, there was still an urgency to respond. It was rude not to. Then the Internet evolved and everyone could find you. E-mail quickly became a sort of digital receptionist, leaving messages that you could prioritize into your own to-do list. Now days, the receptionist function has necessarily evolved into a personal secretary function, screening, filtering and pre-prioritizing messages for you. As a result, the percentage of messages that you respond to immediately has sharply dropped off.

3. Then we went mobile. In the early years of cell phones, providers didn't know how to price the services and battery life was so short that they were used primarily to make important outgoing calls and then turned off much of the time. So that was a false start. But once cellular providers got their pricing models ironed out and the electronics folks improved the power-supply situation, there was a huge sense of urgency attached to a ringing cell phone, not to mention a sense of status. You only gave your cell number out to those that had a legitimate need to reach you no matter where you were, and your level of importance could be measured by your speed-dial list, and the amount of time you spent with the phone to your ear in public settings. We're beginning to lose some of that exclusivity these days and, therefore, that compelling sense of urgency, but the technologists have found ways to hold off the inevitable, at least for a while.

I think the most telling thing is watching how teenagers use their phones. My kids have completely tuned out ringing landline phones, which are really just answering machines that make annoying noises so the old folks can hear them. But when their handsets go off, one of several things can happen:

  • With the right ring tone (girl friend) they answer immediately.
  • With the wrong ring tone (the "rents"), it goes to message.
  • With a common ring tone, they will a) check the ID of the caller and answer or let it go to message, or b) just let it go to message (it seems to be a mood thing).
  • A text ring tone will always require a reading of the message, and a reply may or may not follow immediately, depending on the sender.

So a text message is, currently, somehow more compelling. I find the text messaging dynamics interesting because my kids used to spend hours on e-mail, and then relegated e-mail to FYI messages in favor of IM. Today they still read "important" e-mails but rarely respond to them. Their IM usage has dropped off in favor of "texting" on their handsets. It's amazing how fast they can tap out messages on those little keys. On the downside, they are much less verbose in personal interactions with their friends, maybe because they know everything they need to know before they meet.

Makes you wonder, what is going to be the compelling form of messaging in the near future. What is going to make you respond immediately?

Let me know.