The other day, I saw a comment somewhere stating “instant messaging is the devil”. That got me thinking about how I use instant messaging and what it’s good and bad for. What follows is a short list of the key features I think are good and bad:
What is interesting to me, is that two points show up as both a good and a bad feature.
The instant nature of instant messaging is amazing, as soon as you click send – its delivered. There is no lag or delay of any significance and you can undertake an instant message conversation at great pace; it really makes email seem slow and antiquated by comparison. When using my computer, I tend to leave things open. So, in the case of an instant message client – I sign in first thing in the morning and I sign out when I go home. The problem is, people can contact you at all times and the nature of the instant message demands your immediate attention. When at work, this can be a distraction for obvious reasons but more importantly, it leads to breaking concentration.
Instant messaging is convenient, amazingly convenient. If you work with a computer regularly, you can no doubt type at a good pace. At which point, having the ability to instant message someone and hopefully get an immediate response is excellent. The problem, which is related to the instant nature as well, is that often you end up spending more time using it than you need to. You ask someone a direct question, you get an answer and what often follows is another minute or more of quick messages. The time adds up very quickly until your work time is just slipping away from you.
The Real World
At work, it was decided we shouldn’t be using instant messaging or IRC. I initially thought it was a poor decision, as we often gather a lot of fast response, good quality information through it. For instance, the fantastic support in the #postgresql channel on irc.freenode.net is invaluable at times, so is being able to contact other developers. However at work, you end up being messaged by non-work related contacts – which leads to spending a minute or two talking about something. Across the course of a day or week, all the minutes soon add up and you’re losing hours.
At home, I find it nearly impossible to get any work done when I’m signed in. You’re contact list assumes, since you’re signed in you must be available to chat. The same thing happens, a little chat here and a little chat there – soon enough you’re work hours are running out and your work isn’t getting done.
Over the last couple of months, I’ve found my use of instant messaging has been slowly declining, until now I often don’t sign in at work at all. It isn’t because work colleagues take up too much time, its the distraction and cumulative minutes here and there. A nice solution would involve grouping your contacts (like you can in MSN) and then allow a group to see you during the day. Using a mechanism like that, you’d at least be limiting your distraction to work related contacts – whom generally contact you about work related things.
When I’m using my computer, it is mostly about getting things done. I am fast building the view that free for all instant messaging isn’t conducive to that outcome at all. A similar opinion is close to being drawn about having your mail client open and auto-receiving mail for you; though the final judgment on that is still undecided.