Not-so-instant messaging

I work in the Internet operations industry. Most (maybe all) of the people I know in the industry use some form of instant messaging all the time. A hell of a lot of us still use one of the great ancestors of IM, IRC. We organise, keep in touch, and do business over IM.

We leave our IM client(s) running all the time, so the moment we open our laptop lid, it logs back in to the IM platform(s) of choice and we’re back online straight away, available to our circle of contacts.

Even if we’re nowhere near the computer, we’ll often still be in IM: We might have manually set that we’re “away”, or depend/hope/pray that the “idle” feature of our client will mark us away, when we’re not paying attention. It’s not unusual to return and find a handful of IM messages waiting for us. I then just process them like any other message, be it email, voicemail, or whatever – respond if it’s needed, take in the message if it’s informational, delete it if it’s not relevant.

Now, here’s the cultural difference…

Folks I know who aren’t Internet Ops sort of folk get agitated when they leave me a message over IM and I don’t respond straight away. They think I’m deliberately ignoring them by not answering them instantly. They’ve even got bent out of shape at me because I’ve not answered them straightaway (“Damnit! I thought this thing was supposed to be instant!”). They don’t realise that I’ve walked away from my keyboard.

While I might virtually be there, I’m not really there at all. “Thank you for your note, I’ll get back to you soon.” I guess if it’s really urgent, they could just pick up the phone.

Their culture seems to be to only use their IM client when they want to chat, when they are sat in front of their keyboard. They find the concept of walking away and leaving stuff on alien. I know that my folks think it’s completely bizarre. They also have all the annoying bleeps and buzzes turned on for message alerts, so they are instantly aware of someone wanting their attention, too, and can reply straight away.

If my industry colleagues are anything like me, all those bleeps and bongs are turned off, they certainly are on my systems. I will have no idea I’ve recieved an IM, unless I look, or I happen to be watching when a little popup background alert floats by.

I guess the message here is that while the medium is instant, nothing else about it is…