My doctoral dissertation was on “Women’s Friendship and the Psychological Sense of Community” (This was also the origin of the initial Contextual Inquiry principles.) So I have always been interested in relationship and community, even more so now as a designer of technology. My usual stance on technology and intimacy is of skeptic, especially as I watch friends walk down the street, talking to their cell phones instead of each other.

Finding the IM phenomenon

At InContext we recently conducted a study of young people (ages 23 to 30) and observed the impact of technology on social relationships. For me, the real phenomenon was the use of Instant Messaging (IM). I had heard about how youth use IM but seeing it live was something else. They IM’d continuously — in work, after work, on weekends, any time. They held multiple conversations at once, so many it was hard to imagine how any work happened. But more importantly — like any human phenomenon you see from the outside but can’t experience from the inside — it seemed senseless and incredibly disruptive to focused activity. And although I came to understand its importance for that age group, and although business uses of IM are coming out, IM was not something I was prone to try.

Becoming a reluctant user

Currently I am managing a new initiative at InContext (stay tuned) where I need to lead a team of managers. One is a management consultant (J) in New York who is at his client sites during the day. Consequently, he finds it hard to get to email or the phone; he also gets little alone time. The rest of the team, co-located in Boston, began to gel. But we also started to build up resentment: J was out of touch, unavailable, and unresponsive. Worse, he and I have a strong personal supportive relationship that was suffering.

Being committed to straight talk I raised the issue. J has another partner (also a woman) who similarly felt disconnected with him. He had introduced her to IM and it changed their sense of partnership and responsiveness. “Lets try it,” he suggested to me, “She no longer complains that we aren’t in touch.” Reluctantly I agreed, thinking “Isn’t it like a man to figure out how to limit contact and that yucky relationship stuff!”

IM improved working relationships

Our team started using IM and we spread it to the entire company. What happened?

  • I used to get annoyed with one team member because he would hang at my door while I was working, waiting to interrupt me. With IM he “dropped in” on the computer. I could choose to respond after finishing a thought, or write him immediately. And I could say, “No I can’t talk now!” My overall irritability with him decreased.
  • Another member who was quiet started sending very short silly notes. It made him show up in a personal way and it made me laugh. When we were out of town we could quip back and forth and tell stories in-between the work questions — it felt like connection.
  • I don’t have to get up from my desk to ask an employee a question, and can quickly check things with another employee who is in New York. She gets quicker answers, and we stopped having endless rounds of email just to coordinate.

With IM the sense of conversation is better than any medium I have seen. I can go back and forth quickly and easily maintaining a coherence of talk. I cut and paste pieces to share with others. And though we long for a group IM (chat doesn’t cut it because it isn’t permanent like a buddy) it definitely makes all of us feel more connected as a working group.

IM improved personal relationships

People who work together naturally develop personal relationships. IM supports those connections. Between the notes about the work, we share our feelings, personal events, thoughts that come to mind, happening, and quotes. We know that it will be “heard” if the person is there and will be gone when they sign off. Our personal revelations don’t clutter the email. Rather, like real talk they pass from one to the other as part of sharing life.

So IM feels like dropping in but it doesn’t disrupt like dropping in. It feels like face-to-face connection but it protects from the time wasting aspects of face-to-face connection. The interaction is real but the communications are short and response time is in control of each person. In the end it does indeed feel like the person is really available and responsive. So IM helps build personal relationships.

IM creates space for family relationships

I discovered that my daughter (age 19) was also online with IM but she and I hadn’t hooked up until this week.

Daughter: “Hey, Mom”
Me: “How are you? How was the class?”
Daughter: “I need money for…… TTYL.”
Me: “Huh what does that mean?”
Daughter: “Talk To You Later!”

Today’s IM session started with a request to join the health club.

Daughter: “It’s only $40 a month, it has classes and a sauna…”
Me: “Show me how you will afford this and all your expenses and then we can talk about giving you the first month payment. And find out if you can back out with no charge if you change your mind.”
Daughter: “You could come with me and take a yoga class…(more sales pitch)”
Me: “This is the president speaking 🙂 Show me the spreadsheet!”

That turned into a passing life reflection.

Daughter: “People can’t believe that you taught me to use Excel when I was 12 years old to do my clothing budget.”
Me: “Well that was our first attempt at teaching you fiscal responsibility!”

And then into a deep life reflection.

We talked back and forth. She shared reflections about her self, her life, her feelings, and her struggle to figure it out. I shared my life story, experience, and learning. We wrote back and forth easily, simply, with no expectation or self-protection, and with no parental direction or counter self-assertion. It was an amazing connection.

I told her I loved her.

That moment to read and reflect before deciding what to say buffered the relationship, shielding us both from the overwhelming power of the connection that was happening. Connection between parents and children, especially about life, is always a tightrope. I don’t know if that conversation could have happened as well in person. IM gave her my immediate responsiveness — it let her know I was there. IM let her reach out and let me know she needed to reach out right then. And we could do it in the middle of the workday.

Interruption by love

Ten years ago I spent some time thinking about love. How do we communicate it? In our busy lives with demanding careers there is always so much to do that seems urgent. As a career woman with two children and a marriage of over 30 years, juggling family commitments and work is always an issue. What does it mean to show love in that sort of life?

Over the years I’ve learned a few things about love. More than anything else the people that love us want to know that they matter. They want to know that they can interrupt our work, that we will stop what we are doing and turn to them as part of daily life — not just in a crisis. The call of work is always great for me. But I realized that parenting is about being “interrupted by love” and I try to make it so. IM lets me be interrupted by love.

Today IM helps me balance my life and enhance my relationships at home and at work. As designers and technologists what more can we hope to achieve? Hats off to the IM inventors — but please don’t add so many features that Instant Messaging loses its power to connect lives.