4 Hints for Managing Online Conversation

As a web worker, I find myself involved in a lot of online conversations – I mean, a lot. As I write this, for example, I have four instant messenger windows open to people on various services, I’m hanging out in 3 Campfire rooms and 3 IRC rooms, and have several private IRC conversations going on as well. Sometimes Skype chats come into the picture for me as well. Fortunately, such conversation tends to be asynchronous, and can be fit in between other things – but managing it all is still a challenge. Here are 4 tips that have helped me keep the situation from getting out of control:

1. Get a Unified Client. Assuming that you have contacts spread across multiple services (as most of us do), the first thing to do is to get a unified client to cut down on the number of applications that you have to run at one time. This also gets rid of time spent flipping through interfaces, trying to remember whether Jane was on MSN or GTalk. I’m using Adium (OS X only) at the moment; in the past, I’ve had success with Trillian or Miranda on Windows as well. These solutions aren’t ideal – I’d love to find something that aggregates all the chats I’m in – but they help.

2. Shove it Off to the Side: Unless chatting is your business, you need to put the chat windows somewhere that they won’t obscure whatever code or other project you’re actually working on. I run all of my communication applications on my laptop, which sits off to the side of my desktop monitors. That puts them close at hand, but ensures that they don’t overlap whatever I’m trying to see. I’m seriously considering adding a second monitor to the laptop to get more pixels for chat windows. If you don’t have a second computer, consider putting the chat windows on their own monitor, or at least a second workspace.

3. Set up Attention Flags: Particularly if you’re monitoring chat rooms, you probably don’t need to watch every message flow by. I’ve found it helpful to use software (like Conversation for IRC, or the Growl notification Greasemonkey script for Campfire, that can make a noise when my name (or a keyword) is mentioned.

4. Keep Logs: Disk space is cheap. Time spent trying to remember what was said, or embarrassment in having to ask contacts to repeat themselves, is expensive. Accordingly, I make sure to use clients that can log everything – and keep the logs. Surprisingly often I find myself searching these for a tip, URL, or action item.

I don’t claim to have the perfect strategy, but doing these things helps me keep up an active bunch of online communications while still managing to write code. What tips do you have to add for online conversation management?

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