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The future of online etiquette is already here — it’s just unevenly distributed

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As anyone who has missed an important email knows by now, modern communications etiquette is a minefield of unspoken expectations and potential anxiety-inducing behavior. If you need further proof, all you have to do is look at some of the responses to a recent blog post by New York Times writer Nick Bilton about his approach to email, voice mail and texting: some reacted with distaste bordering on horror, while others cheered his take on the topic. Part of the problem is that different users look at these tools differently — and in some cases have wildly different views of what is appropriate and what isn’t.

For example, Bilton says his father insists on leaving him voice-mail messages but the NYT writer never listens to them, so his frustrated parent eventually called his sister to complain, and she told their father to text him instead — and Bilton adds that his mother has progressed to the point where they communicate mostly through Twitter. Is this a son helping his parents adapt, or a rude refusal to meet them on their own turf? Many saw it as the latter:

Screen Shot 2013-03-11 at 1.24.32 PM

We have too many ways to communicate

Author Ian Leslie noted in a response on his own blog that Bilton’s description of what’s wrong with modern communication — whether it’s voice mail or texting or Twitter — and his relationship with his parents misunderstands what communication is for. If you look at them as pure information delivery, Leslie says, then they are riddled with problems. But if you see them as a way of socializing with others who are close to us then they look completely different:

“The problem here isn’t just that Bilton unintentionally comes off as rather rude… his argument betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of communication. Writing about computers a lot, he assumes communication is all about the transfer of information from one hard drive to another. That being so, the more efficient the transfer is, the better.”

I think a larger problem Bilton touches on, but doesn’t address directly, is that we have more competing forms of communication available to us than ever before — and not only are different people at different stages in their evolution from one to the other, but people also use them for very different purposes. So for Bilton’s dad, voice mail is a great way of passing on important information, but Nick prefers the real-time nature of texting or Twitter messaging.

The NYT blogger mentions how a whole new kind of etiquette had to be developed around the telephone, and how debate raged over the appropriate way to answer (Alexander Graham Bell preferred the term “Ahoy!,” which just reinforces why we shouldn’t let the inventors of things decide how we use them). But at least people in the 1920s only had one new form of communication to figure out — we have email, voice mail, texting, Facebook messaging, Twitter and more.


It gets worse when the person you are trying to correspond with uses all of these tools: I’ve tried to contact someone I know fairly well by email, voice mail, text message, Twitter direct messaging and everything short of smoke signals, and I never know from one day to the next which of those methods (if any) are going to work. We have more ways than ever to communicate, but sometimes that just means more ways to miss each other.

Not every tool works for every purpose

In a lot of cases, I think the problem boils down to one of asynchronous vs. synchronous behavior and expectations. Part of the reason why many people (particularly geeks) dislike talking on the phone is that it forces both sides to be present at the same time, instead of allowing a user to consume or respond to the information at their own pace — or multi-task while they are doing so. Phone calls also have no natural time-span.

The other conflict is over what the purpose of the communication is. Someone who sends a long email or leaves a voice mail asking you to call them back may wish to have a long, rambling conversation purely to socialize, and get offended when you send a curt response (or no response at all). Similarly, if you only ever text or use Twitter direct messages with someone, you may be communicating really efficiently but you miss a lot of the personal nuances that still make up much of human communication.

And then there are the obvious age-related issues: I have tried valiantly to get my mother to use Facebook (s fb), arguing that this is a great way to keep in touch — however transiently — with her grandchildren, none of whom has any interest whatsoever in using email or talking on the telephone. But for my mother, email and the phone are her primary means of connecting with the world, and the former was something that took ages for her to get comfortable with. And now that she has grown comfortable with it, no one is using it any more.

All I think we can really say for sure is that this state of affairs is likely to continue, if not get worse. As William Gibson said in a different context: “The future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed.” And so we are all at different stages of adapting to this new communications future. Perhaps the one thing we need most is to be patient with those who aren’t where we are.

Images courtesy of Shutterstock / Steve Woods and Arvind Grover

12 Responses to “The future of online etiquette is already here — it’s just unevenly distributed”

  1. Anastasia M. Ashman

    Returning to the US after almost a decade abroad has felt to me like time travel — backwards — especially in terms of communication. Even though I feel more connected than ever, someone left me a message on my new American phone line saying “I’ve been waiting 10 years to talk to you.” Last spring my startup hosted a webvideo conversation on the communication styles of globally mobile progressives (you can still view the recording here: and came to the same conclusion Mathew Ingram does in this piece. As the more progressive party, we must communicate with people where they exist, and that may be somewhere in the past.

  2. Geeks simply displaying their lack of TRUE social interacting abilities…….LIKE TALKING TO EACH OTHER.
    And author here has AUDACITY to claim that “no one is using” emails anymore…….SHEEEESSSSSHHHHH!!!!!!!!!

    Keep on climbing into your tech cocoons……..keep on keeping people at arm’s length……….keep on thinking that “friending” someone = ACTUAL + true communication……keep on thinking that the internet is ALL the ACTUAL world……and keep on thinking that EVERYONE has access to devices and the net……..

    YOU WILL be led by the nose by large entities (whether gov, corp, u or cult) into SIMPLY being “hip” CONSUMERS insead of concerned and ACTIVE (for REAL) CITIZENS that should be demanding SOOOOOO much more…….

    and YOU will contribute MIGHTILY to the destruction of the human race.


  3. hortron

    Good article. I have issues communicating with my wife when I’m at work because she uses her iphone at home and around town and I’m sitting at a computer. She prefers texting me, I dislike being texted b/c it costs $0.10 a message! I’d love an email (I have umpteen accounts or fb) but she says it’s harder than I think to send an email from her phone. Maybe she subconsciously knows that if I got a super-short email from her, I’d think she’s being rude, but it’s a matter of the input, whereas if I got a super short text, the constraints of less space would be implicit.

    What I don’t understand is why would you use twitter? (we’re talking DM, right?) Is it all a matter of what application you’re looking at the most?

  4. Not listening to the voice mails is just rude. Responding to a voice mail with a text or twitter is only ok if you actually expect the other person to see the message. As a person who’s been cell phone only for close to a decade, I expect that a text message will at least get seen in a reasonable amount of time. If I had a reliable way of getting to a persons voice mail without their phone ringing, I’d often respond to voice mail’s with voice mails, but I didn’t really want to get stuck in a conversation.

    The one voice mail message that was always the least likely to get me to respond has been “Call me back.” with no further explanation.

  5. Hamza Shaban

    Mathew, your paragraph on people being at different stages in communication tech and using those technologies for different purposes is spot on. Another consideration in the abundance of comm. tech is the notion of not-wanting-to-be-reached.

    For example, being active on Facebook or Twitter, we are often consuming by reading. And at times we would rather not be bothered while doing this. In addition, the kind of open and public communication invites anyone and everyone to contact us, when, in many instances, we wish to be selective with whom we speak.

    Just because a person has a mobile phone, doesn’t mean she has to answer it. (I feel sorry for Bilton’s dad!)

  6. One aspect of jerk Bilton’s parents may be they don’t use Twitter. People don’t take into consideration that there are people out there that did not grow up with computers and are not so tech savvy as to use every form of communication that is available. I am one of those people as I have never used Twitter,

    I believe jerk Bilton needs to take his father’s preference into consideration. He is sorely lacking in “manners and consideration”.

  7. oops, darn spelling auto-correct

    “The medium is the mAssage”

    (haha.. quite the irony: ‘auto-correct’ changing a context to a phrase about the medium, message, and context)

  8. Maria Brophy

    Call me old-fashioned, but I hardly text, and I will sometimes not even SEE a text until 2 days later. People who know me well know not to text me anything that needs immediate response!

    I prefer to talk on the phone, keep it short, but get it all out in one shot. Or email, which is my 2nd preference.

    But I can understand why people prefer texting and tweeting. It’s more efficient!

  9. MrPiccolo

    I think there is an aspect of your argument that is missing…

    “Part of the reason why many people (particularly geeks) dislike talking on the phone is that it forces both sides to be present at the same time, instead of allowing a user to consume or respond to the information at their own pace…”

    Of course there is a group of folks that simply don’t like to talk on the phone, but I would argue the majority of people that prefer a non-disruptive means of communication are simply asking for you to respect their time.

    Relating this argument to the business world, you always schedule a time to talk on the phone, unless there is already a precedent in place (e.g. boss to employee).

    Before there was any kind of digital communication and phones was the predominant means of getting ahold of someone, assistances acted as the buffer to do all the things email, text and social media do today (obviously along with a number of other things). That was not a privilege of someone that was more important, it was a privilege of someone who could afford it. Now we all have the access to digital assistances for free (email/ text/twitter).

    This is not a new concept…call my assistant (i.e. email/text/twitter me) and we will setup a time to talk!

    When I get an unexpected phone call I feel a bit disrespected…even when it is from my parents.