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Game Theory

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“He doesn’t use e-mail? Didn’t he get the faxed memo? This is the ’90s!”

I uttered these outraged words last decade when a fellow graduate student informed me that her advisor refused to communicate via email. As our nation’s leading media-law scholar, he was in the fortunate position of being able to do whatever he wanted.

His stubborn refusal to get with the program boggled my mind. How could such a towering intellect behave like a Luddite? I immediately updated my list of commandments for aging gracefully. You would never see me waxing rhapsodic about how there has been no good music since the 1960s. My jeans would be appropriately baggy, tight, dark-blue, or acid-washed, depending on the dictates of indie-yet-not-too-fringe popular culture. And I would never allow myself to display such technophobic behavior.

Of course, instant messaging is different. I’ll use it occasionally, but the unending stream of beeps makes it impossible to focus. It’s great for the “always-connected” kids, with their Facebook pages and up-to-the-second Twitters, but I’ve got serious work to do.

A few weeks ago, after months of frustration with my half-hearted use of instant-messaging, my colleague Adri reached her breaking point. “I don’t even know how to hold those conversations via email,” she said. “IM is so much easier, and more efficient.”

My head was buried in a stack of film papers when her message arrived, and her insistence on different ways of doing things annoyed me — though it seemed oddly familiar. I pointed Adri to a recent study out of UC Irvine that found that contemporary information workers are bombarded by an unending assault on their ability to concentrate. They spend no more than 11 minutes at a time on a given task. It takes 25 minutes to get back on track after being interrupted, and people forget what they were doing approximately 40 percent of the time.

This assault has to stop! I summarized the findings in an email and wearily returned to grading. Case closed.

Three hours later, an IM popped up on my screen with a link to an article by Anne Zelenka in the blog Web Worker. “I see your research on interruptions,” wrote Adri, “and raise you this article about burst workstyles.”

Though I remain unconvinced by all of Zelenka’s articles, her central premise is unassailable. Recent years have witnessed an explosion in the number of interpersonal communication channels. While the contemporary workplace is fixated on electronic mail and telephone calls, newer forms of messaging are more appropriate for transmitting certain types of information and inquiries. Thus, we are witnessing a culture clash between more traditional habits and “burst” working styles that selectively embrace the new technologies.

“Bursters realize that they don’t need to live in their email,” writes Zelenka. “They know you should try instant messaging if you need a quick answer, go with a blog post if you’re announcing something, and use a wiki for archiving information useful to the entire team … `B`ursters know that the less they use email, the more their colleagues will seek them out using other channels.”

And then it struck me. If I didn’t at least try to fold IM into my workflow, I risked becoming my former professor. After quickly consulting Pitchfork Media to reassure myself that my music taste had not fallen too far behind the curve, I resolved to give instant messaging another try.

Thirty seconds of googling led me to blog postings by other knowledge workers revisiting their hostility to instant messaging. In these pieces, they share useful tactics for controlling the flood of unwanted

Contemporary IM programs allow users to suppress audible and visual notifications of incoming messages, and this is the single-most important strategy for managing interruptions. Diligent use of the “away” message is also crucial. Just as leaning over a notepad or closing the door signals “leave me alone” in the physical workspace, an away message announcing “grading” or “coding” can indicate focused attention to IM correspondents. Researchers have found that such messages reduce the number of interruptions by forcing others to carefully consider whether or not the topic is important enough to warrant an interuption.

This morning, I set up new personal accounts on AOL Instant Messenger, ICQ, and Yahoo Messenger. I used a free program called Trillian to integrate all of the accounts into a single interface, but could just as easily have used the free programs GAIM, Meebo, or Miranda. It took 10 minutes to understand and configure all of the notification/interruption options, but they’re now adjusted to match my different modes of working.

In exchange for my willingness to experiment with different ways of communicating, I have one request for my colleague. Ten years from now, when Metaversatility is hard at work on Metaverse 5.0, and one of our co-workers pressures you to adapt your work style, I hope you will remember our recent conversation. When this happens, be sure to dash off an email message with all the details. Or, better yet, why not just send me a quick IM? It’s easier that way.