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Remember the days when email first appeared? It was asynchronous, 1:1 communication — a way of leaving a message without needing to interact in real-time with the person in question. Other communication protocols had tried this before (telegraph, fax, regular post), but nothing was faster. Email could also carry files and support better interactions — again, asynchronously.

When email first appeared, it seemed a gift to the busy professional, parent, or student. You could time-shift and time-manage in entirely new ways.

But was asynchrony really a feature? Or was it a bug, an unavoidable side-effect of a low-bandwidth world?

Nicholas Carr has an interesting post on this topic, one that recognizes that the real-time Web is bound to increase in importance as initiatives like Google Wave and the already familiar Twitter and Facebook offerings become more immersive. Even online video is becoming synchronous, as U2 will be broadcasting a concert live on YouTube later this month. Bandwidth is becoming something with a new upper limit to test.

Of course, Carr doesn’t see this new level of immersion as all that attractive:

The transaction costs of interpersonal communication have fallen below zero: It costs more to leave the stream than to stay in it. The approaching Wave promises us the best of both worlds: the realtime immediacy of the phone call with the easy broadcasting capacity of email. Which is also, as we’ll no doubt come to discover, the worst of both worlds. Welcome to the conference call that never ends. Welcome to Wave hell.

Email has other niceties. You can respond when you want to, add people to a response or cut some out, blind-copy or cc people as you see fit, etc. As Carr puts it,

Email delivered us from the telephone’s realtime stream. Suddenly, we controlled, individually, our main communications medium, rather than vice versa. We could choose when to read our email, and, more important, we could choose when to respond – and whom to respond to. The buffer was built into the technology.

This concept of buffers built into the technology is vital to thriving in the emerging online world. Even the telephone now has the buffers of caller ID and voicemail and call-waiting to manage the information triage and flow. But do our digital offerings?

The interfaces of today don’t support the synchronous world of tomorrow. As Google Wave demonstrates, our interfaces are changing, but are they changing in a way that keeps users in control?

Interface designers should start paying attention to the real-time web and assuming a world of synchrony rather than presuming an archival web and a world of asynchrony. Publishers and information providers should begin to plan for a world of complete data immersion and realtime access.

But these plans should leave the user in control. Just the other day, Amazon introduced a way to have your order status updated by SMS/text messaging. And why did I hesitate to invoke it (even though I’m a huge fan of checking my order status)? Because I wasn’t sure how many text messages I was setting myself up to receive. One every time a scanner kissed a label? One per day? And once the texting started, it’s very difficult to stop.

Customers are living in a world immersed in bandwidth. The metaphor of the page is gone and soon to follow is the concept of bounded information. But to keep our sanity and our customers, we need to learn how to implement and design user controls, buffers, and sanity into this new world of synchrony and bandwidth.

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


3 Thoughts on "Welcome to a Synchronous Digital Hell"

Always nice to see you channeling Sartre. I think you’re right, “hell” is the appropriate word here. Like most people, I have other things I have to do at my job beyond responding to messages. I don’t even use IM because I find it too interruptive and annoying. I also think that for many communiques, a well thought out, well written response is important. That’s not possible if you’re obliged to immediately respond to everything anyone sends you.

I’d also be hesitant to see Google’s Wave as something that’s going to get a lot of traction. The early reviews of it have been horrible, ranging from “impressive but useless” (here), and “too complicated for its own good” (here), to calling it “the Segway of email” (here). I thought this was a particularly good article, decrying the visibility of your message in Wave as you type it, and how that tends to inhibit writers. The article does note that Wave is an extremely useful tool for corporate collaboration, but that’s a long way from the “e-mail replacement” it’s been touted as. Given Google’s propensity for abandoning projects that don’t catch on, we’ll have to wait and see whether Wave continues to roll on toward the shore.

I think it’s important to understand that Wave is not the user interface, just as e-mail is not Microsoft Exchange. If you’ve not done so, try the iPhone UI for Wave. I think its quite a bit better than the browser UI. Once third party UIs are available for Wave, I think there will be a real turning point.

You don’t have to let other people see you type- that’s a UI issue, not a platform issue.

The typing issue strikes me as somewhat symbolic of the problems here–it serves no useful function and appears to have been included just to add some “gee whiz” factor, there because it was technologically possible, not because it’s useful. There’s a good article on it here:

…live typing is one of those Cool Demo Features that looks really awesome when showing off the app. Features like that can be dangerous because they are legitimately very useful during the app’s gestation, when exciting demos are a key survival trait; but then they can’t be removed later on because they’re so well-known, even if they turn out to be useless. Sometimes these features aren’t actually harmful to the user experience, they just make the code more complex and harder to maintain. Instant typing is both, unfortunately.

You are correct in that Wave is something of an open framework, and it will be interesting to see what people make of it. If anything, it probably won’t end up being used exactly as Google is proposing (much as Twitter has turned into something very different than it was originally envisioned as). I do think it has value as a tool for collaboration, but find it overly complex for simple communication. And if you’re just going to pare it way down so it’s the same as IM or e-mail, why not save all the work and just use IM or e-mail?

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