Lately I have started think about how social rules IRL(in real life) and using digital media really works. As everything else in society all these rules vary to some degree between situations and are affected by who you are interacting with. The question is what is considered being good tone and what is considered to be rude nowadays. Humans are really good at sending signals “between the lines” using diplomatic language with hints and insinuations and using body language to signal different emotions which then other humans are differently skilled at interpreting or even caring about at all.
In normal day-to-day conversations around a table it is generally considered rude to ignore what someone is saying or even refrain from answering direct questions. Over the phone or a voice chat it is similar but body language isn’t communicated (unless using video chats) and you can therefore afford to look bored, do faces or whatever while somebody is talking in the other end. As long as we are doing synchronous (real-time) voice communication a lot of the social rules for IRL seem to apply.
When the mobile phone rings you either answer or don’t but most people choose to call back at a later time to see what that person had on their mind. To me that is a good example of a social rule in modern society. Can one expect someone to call back if we have bothered to call them? Or is the social rule that if it important (enough) you expect someone to try again? Is therefore a repeated set of calls in a short matter of time a sign of urgency?
Getting an text message (SMS) notifying me that I have a voice message usually also signfies a sense or urgency or importance which I usually find results in a call back to me. However, I believe here is another area where we see a change in social interactions because the mobile phone is always with us and always on. Many people today bring their phone everywhere which includes meetings,vistit at friend’s and dinners. That means that is has been regarded ok to not answer because you are not able to talk at that specific time. Reasonable that has also meant that people choose not to answer when someone is calling and you don’t feel like talking to them.
Text chats seem nowadays to bridge synchronous and asynchronous communication. In one sense it is real-time because you can interact very rapidly and if both are typing really fast it can become a fast paced discussion. In general I also think that in the early days of Instant Messaging (IM) the siginificance of a text chat was higher than it is today. If you got that pop-up window with a bleep I usually switched my focus on that and bothered to answered directly. Today, we see IM going really mainstream and becoming a part of corporate infrastructures often with the argument of replacing some emails. That means that IM text chats are to some respects a replacement of asynchronous messaging (often email) where you type something up which does not really require an immediate response but something you want your co-worker to be aware of. You know that people are in meetings, talk to people around them and therefore can’t be expected to pay attention to all incoming IM-messages right away. That IM-message has then became an asynchronous message that gets read minutes or even hours later. Socially that must mean that there is an acceptance of IM-messages not being answered to directly and therefore not considered a rude behaviour. However, I do believe that it is a little but rude to ignore replying to an IM at all or at least mentioning that in an email or the next IM-chat.
I personally think it is really cool to be online at all times but the question is if that also means a committment(personal domain) or responsibility (corporate domain) to also answer and interact as soon as you can? In my personal domain I think the way IM is used has changed a bit over the years. In the early days of iChat we were intensely chatting often but nowadays it has almost shifted that an IM is done only when you have something important to say and therefore almost “worthy” of a phone call but just almost. The way IM works is that it usually doesn’t require your full attention the way a phone call does. Nowadays you do IM while doing something else.
I wonder if this means that all means of communcation changes in the way we see them as requiring our attention or how important they are to us. We I got my first Internet connection back in 1995 I think I considered an email being somewhat the same as an old-fashion letter. It was carefully drafted and sent with some sense of importance and thus requiring an answer. Over time email also became a way to share information “for-your-information” rather than something requiring a direct reponse. Email became a way to share information more casually. Compared to writing a letter it is so much easier to copy a text or just send a link to a web page. More of anything can often mean that the sense exclusiveness goes away somewhat, unless you are in love of course when I guess many love messages only make things better in most cases.
Social media (such as FaceBook) brings the sharing aspect of information to a whole new level. Nowadays you can share your current situation where you express what you are doing, how feel and what you are about to do. Thing that differes social media networks from web pages with information is that it usually assumes you have some sort of relationship to people who you are sharing your information with. The information is personalised and therefore to a higher degree targeted by you. Just as you expect a reaction to something you say over dinner about what is happening in your life I guess many people who post their “status” on FaceBook hope or desire some kind of reaction to it. Congratulations to good things that happen and expressions of compassion when bad things happen in their life. So as we are getting more and more information about people around us the questions how we do handle the social rules about all this social information. Is it rude to not read or try to keep up-to-date about someone you know? Do you expect comments from these people around events in your life? Is a FaceBook message something that require an answer just as we might think of an email or an IM-chat?
No matter if how reactions or response will arrive the increase of information streams (should we call personal ones life streams?) coming from sources you have chosen will most likely affect people who consume them to some degree. In an era of mass information and need for affirmation it can be confusing when different people apply different social rules to all these communication possibilities. Some people apply the social rules of IRL strictly and get offended when people don’t follow them. Others are very relaxed about the whole thing and don’t feel obliged to do anything at all. The thing that confuses me is when the level of obligation is determined out of someones particular view of a specific tool rather than their relation to the person they have a relationship with.