The Future of Online Etiquette Is Already Here—It's Just Unevenly Distributed

Photograph by John Fedele

As anyone who has missed an important e-mail knows by now, modern communications etiquette represents a minefield of unspoken expectations and potential anxiety-inducing behavior. If you need further proof, all you have to do is look at some of the responses to a recent blog post by New York Times writer Nick Bilton about his approach to e-mail, voice mail, and texting: Some reacted with distaste bordering on horror, while others cheered his take on the topic. Part of the problem is that different users look at these tools differently—and in some cases, have wildly different views of what is appropriate and what isn’t.

For example, Bilton says his father insists on leaving him voice mail messages but the NYT writer never listens to them. His frustrated parent eventually called his sister to complain; she told their father to text him instead. Bilton adds that his mother has progressed to the point where they communicate mostly through Twitter. Is this a son helping his parents adapt, or is he rudely refusing to meet them on their own turf? Many saw it as the latter:

@nickbilton: “I force my parents to communicate with me over Twitter, because I can’t be bothered with phone calls”…
felix salmon (@felixsalmon) Mar. 10

Author Ian Leslie noted in a response on his own blog that Bilton’s description of what’s wrong with modern communication—whether it’s voice mail or texting or Twitter—and his relationship with his parents display a misunderstanding of what communication is for. If you look at these channels as pure information delivery, Leslie says, they are riddled with problems. If you see them as a way of socializing with others who are close to us, they look completely different: “The problem here isn’t just that Bilton unintentionally comes off as rather rude. … his argument betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of communication. Writing about computers a lot, he assumes communication is all about the transfer of information from one hard drive to another. That being so, the more efficient the transfer is, the better.”

I think a larger problem Bilton touches on, but doesn’t address directly, is that we have more competing forms of communication available to us than ever before. Not only are different people at different stages in their evolution from one to the other, they use them for very different purposes. So for Bilton’s dad, voice mail is a great way to pass on important information, but Nick prefers the real-time nature of texting or Twitter messaging.

The NYT blogger mentions how a whole new kind of etiquette had to be developed around the telephone—and how debate raged over the appropriate way to answer one. (Alexander Graham Bell preferred the term “Ahoy!”—which just reinforces why we shouldn’t let the inventors of things decide how we use them.) At least people in the 1920s had only one new form of communication to figure out; we have e-mail, voice mail, texting, Facebook messaging, Twitter, and more.

It gets worse when the person you are trying to correspond with uses all these tools: I’ve tried to contact someone I know fairly well by e-mail, voice mail, text message, Twitter direct messaging, and everything short of smoke signals, and I never know from one day to the next which of those methods (if any) are going to work. We have more ways than ever to communicate, but sometimes that just means more ways to miss each other.

In a lot of cases, I think the problem boils down to one of asynchronous vs. synchronous behavior and expectations. Part of the reason why many people (particularly geeks) dislike talking on the phone is that it forces both sides to be present at the same time, instead of allowing users to consume or respond to the information at their own pace—or multitask while they are doing so. Phone calls also have no natural time span.

The second conflict is over the purpose of the communication. Those who send long e-mails or leave voice mails asking you to call them back may wish to have long, rambling conversations purely to socialize; they may get offended when you send a curt response—or none at all. Similarly, if you only ever text or use Twitter direct messages with someone, you may be communicating very efficiently but you miss a lot of personal nuances that still make up much of human communication.

Then there are the obvious age-related issues: I have tried to get my mother to use Facebook, arguing that this is a great way to keep in touch—however transiently—with her grandchildren, none of whom has any interest whatsoever in using e-mail or talking on the telephone. For my mother, e-mail and the phone are her primary means of connecting with the world, and the former was something that took ages for her to get comfortable with. Now that she has grown comfortable with it, no one is using it.

All I think we can really say for sure is that this state of affairs is likely to continue, if not get worse. As William Gibson said in a different context: “The future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed.” So we are all at different stages of adapting to this new communications future. Perhaps the one thing we need most is to be patient with those who aren’t where we are.

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