• United States
IDG Enterprise Consulting Director

Your thoughts on being always-on in the IM world

Sep 19, 20038 mins
Data CenterMessaging Apps

One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important.

Bertrand Russell

Dear Vorticians,

I’ve said it before: Sometimes this newsletter writes itself.

The response to my missive last week about the dangers of immediate communications and presence awareness drew a wide range of responses, which I’ll share below. It’s clear that the community of Vorticians out there is divided on the value of instant messaging and always-on connectivity. I hope you’ll continue the discussion by sending me your ideas and insights at

In response to the cautionary tale about my friend and his IM nightmare, Vortician Robert Hall wrote: “John, you’re right in some aspects. IM can be intrusive, annoying and sometimes rude. However, I have to say that without it I would not be as productive or be able to, as you put it, ‘check up’ on employees. I don’t consider it checking up, but just another communications vehicle in which to stay in touch in our remote and busy day. With all of the conference calls, e-mail, project deadlines and trying to stay in touch with remote employees, IM is a blessing not a curse. Are we all ADD? Probably, but you can always turn IM off if you need some uninterrupted time.”

Vortician Jerome Joffe wrote: “John, thanks for the insights about IM.  I do not use it now. I tried it when it first became available but did not like it.  I got very little out of chat in the ’80s, and this is a watered down version of chat.  Do you think people get lost in technology in a vain attempt to be cool?”

Yes, Vortician Joffe, I think that happens more than we like to admit.

Vortician John Gentle had this to say: “John, after reading your scenario about the trials and tribulations suffered by nomadic colleagues forced to work from the isolation of home and frustrated by the endless ringing of the IM bell I can only say ‘I wish’!

“I work in the middle of the so-called ‘bull-pen’ where 10 of us are trying to make calls, listen to our Webcasts, and network without stepping on each others’ toes, not to mention a manager who is calling my desk or coming in to ‘check-up’ on us every half hour. If my office pool was given the work from home option it would be snatched up faster than cookies at a daycare.

“Admittedly, I have longed for the day where my sleek sunglasses were actually a semi-transparent LCD screen wirelessly connected to a PDA-sized computer system that I could carry in my pocket, being connected constantly to all people, places, and things that I love or need within a matter of seconds. Now that we stand on the brink of that frontier I embrace the opportunity whole-heartedly. If the IM bell bugs you then mute it, if you are lonely then VPN or RSA from a coffee shop!

“ADD is not a result of connectivity, it is a lack of mental discipline. My greatest fear is that we hold within our hands the possibility for endless education. All can read and write and perform mathematics and find out any piece of information they need to facilitate their existence and sustain a higher quality of living. But instead, we’ll choose to squander that opportunity to use technology to unite us and instead use it to create additional artificial barriers so people can continue to be lazy and give excuses for why they haven’t taken the initiative to change their lives. I accept that there will be those who will misuse such an amazing potential, but we have the opportunity to truly unite the world, even if it is only via the Web.

“As we rapidly approach the time-nexus of complete global synergy we should turn our vision away from the petty preoccupations of our mundane realities and focus instead on the horizon laid before our feet. If you ever want to be free from the SCOs and Enrons of the world you must first educate yourself, then you must free your mind of its prejudices and boundaries. To quote Mr. Reeves once more ‘There is no spoon’.”

Thanks Vortician Gentle, but I must have missed the movie with that quote. Which one?

Vortician Niall Gallagher added: “John, I think you have hit the nail on the head, so to speak. Some personal observations: I work for Nortel and, as has become typical in most businesses, work with a very geographically dispersed team. Now, Nortel does not endorse IM use for work purposes but as long as nothing confidential is discussed, doesn’t prevent it either.

“I first came to use IM about two years ago when I noticed that colleagues were obviously messaging to each other. I joined the club and found IM useful at providing a back channel for conversations during the many lengthy conference calls I had to participate in. As long as IM was used in moderation, it was fine. In fact, I found it helped me.

“As our circle of IM users grew, we experienced effects just like those you describe in your friend’s company. The signal to noise ratio decreased drastically and the information entropy increased until people stopped using IM by natural selection. My circle of contacts hasn’t changed and we have each other on our IM friends list, but we use it far more selectively. For instance, I can check if a colleague in Asia is on-line at an un-social hour without having to phone first. Rather than phone, which can be quite intrusive at 2am, I can send a quick note ‘OK to call now?’.

“I see my teen-age son using IM — he flits from conversation to conversation, never really paying anyone the attention that I think I would, just as if his attention span were reduced. I have asked him how he does it and he looks at me as if I were a dinosaur who just doesn’t get the modern way!

“I spent quite a while working in Asia and found that the most common messaging service in use there was SMS. It’s also widely used in Europe. I would see friends and colleagues in Hong Kong, where I was based, literally spending hours messaging, SMS-ing or texting to their friends. In the Philippines, several of the cellular operators offer text-only tariffs!

“Summary: IM and SMS are great for business if used properly, which does not sound at all like your friend’s company’s experience. They can find their own level of acceptable usage (my experience above) but can quickly grow out of hand if used for novelty and water-cooler type conversations and ‘upward-monkeys’. In a social context, there is a great divide between younger users and more mature users.”

Last week’s note even brought a response from my colleague Beth Schultz, who’s responsible for all of Network World’s excellent Signature Series issues (The Power Issue, The NW 200, The Best Issue, etc.) “John, I had to chime in here as an IM user, and an NW advocate. For remote workers such as myself, IM is definitely a love-hate technology. It’s incredibly useful at times and a total time-sapper at others. Though, in defense of the latter, it does provide a good substitute for those over-the-cubicle-wall conversations we miss out on being home workers. After all, their ain’t nobody to bump into on the way from my office to the bathroom.). And, I’d bet once everybody gets more adjusted to the remote worker setup, IM use will dissipate some.” 

“But seriously, sounds like your friend’s company needs a strong IM usage policy (see

Thanks, Beth. Glad to see you supporting the VORTEX effort!

Finally, this from Vortician Bill Sell, who’s one of the folks behind the creation of the CeBIT America conference that launched in June: “John, good column today on IMs and the most over-used benefit of the Internet. The need for immediate interaction and reaction might be good in some businesses, but I place IMs and Nextel for most of us in the category of productivity drainers and bad for businesses.

“BlackBerrys are not so bad – I’ve had one since about a month after they came out several years ago, and found instant e-mail untethered isn’t bad because you can get back to the sender when you need to or when you get a chance. IMs and Nextels expect instant reaction or they ping you again and again. Maybe I’m on the telephone in a real conversation; maybe I’m in the middle of trying to write/compose a real business proposal and need to think through wording carefully. IMs and Nextels simply bring those actions to a halt. We need a DND (Do Not Disturb) feature for IMs like we have for telephones. Let the sender know we appreciate them reaching out to touch us, but some of us just need to do real work sometimes. DND is not the same as turning off IMs, just telling you ‘not now’. And co-workers and bosses and family should not take it as a slight when we don’t answer IMs instantly.”

That’s it for this week. Sorry to run on so long but I wanted you to hear from your colleagues in the field. Thanks to all of them, and the many other folks, who responded. Send me your thoughts at

Bye for now.