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Instant irritations

Instant messages, popular at home, have proven a mixed blessing at work.

©New York Times

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 8, 1999


Lately, Virginia Shea has started to sneak around online. Instant messages, she said, have left her no other choice.

"If I log on to try to work, then see that somebody on my instant-message contact list is on, too, I log off right away -- without even reading my e-mail," said Shea, a writer who works from her home in Sunnyvale, Calif. "I just know they are going to send me a message to say hi or something. I often just don't have time to say hi."

Her other option would be to stay online without replying. "But that would be totally rude, wouldn't it?" Shea said.

She has to ask? Shea is the author of a 1994 book called Netiquette. If she doesn't know how to deal with instant messages in the workplace, it raises the question: Who does?

The answer is: nobody, apparently. Instant message programs, which allow computer users to carry on quick on-screen conversations with one another, started as a home hobby, enabling chatty teenagers to keep in touch without big phone bills. The popularity of the two most widely used programs, ICQ and America Online's Instant Messenger, has shot up with the number of home users leaping from 500,000 in early 1997 to more than 25.1-million at the end of June, according to Media Metrix.

So it was only a matter of time before home computer users started to install instant-message software on their office computers and create informal networks of conversing colleagues. The business market is big enough and lucrative enough that Microsoft and Yahoo spent part of the summer in a spat with AOL because they want to link their instant-message systems to AOL's so that messages can easily flow from one system to the others.

Unlike e-mail messages, which wait patiently for you to open them, an instant message is the electronic equivalent of a ringing phone because it pops up on the recipient's screen immediately.

But somebody apparently forgot to ask instant-message users what they thought. Many of the features that make the service so appealing to teenagers -- its speed, intrusiveness and the ability to see who else is online -- have made it as welcome as a Friday afternoon meeting in many offices.

Messages that pop up on screen at an inopportune moment (sometimes from the next cubicle) are destroying workers' concentration. Thoughtless text scrawled and sent in haste can spark online arguments. And in some offices, the question of who is privileged enough to receive certain instant messages is creating the kind of tortured pecking order last seen in high school.

Razvan Surdulescu, a software developer at Trilogy Software in Austin, Texas, started using instant messages several months ago to chat with friends in and out of work. But he was frequently interrupted by personal messages just when he was about to go to important meetings.

"It got out of control in April," he said, "because I have a lot of friends who weren't working and had a lot of time on their hands. Every day at around 5 p.m., they'd ask if I wanted to have a chat, at the worst time of day. So I had to set the controls to make myself invisible to most people. I started lurking, in the sense that I was only available to co-workers who really needed to reach me."

Instant messages can be more annoying than other forms of electronic communication because they appear on screen as soon as they are sent. Recipients of voice mail, e-mail or faxes can choose to acknowledge a message whenever it is convenient. But with instant messages, the sender is in control, unless the recipient dodges messages electronically.

Just as you can turn off the ringer on your phone, you can turn off your instant messages, keeping everyone or just certain people from getting through. But just as with a phone that is never answered, people will wonder why you are not available for instant messages. Another strategy is to tell your computer to respond to instant messages by sending a message saying you will be back later, which also can irritate people trying to reach you.

"It's the cyber-equivalent of someone walking into your office and starting up a conversation as if you had nothing better to do," said Jeanne Hinds, who publishes a Web page called Etiquette Hell and is the co-moderator of an e-mail group that discusses general etiquette. "It violates the basic courtesy of not shoving yourself into other people's faces."

Hinds, whose Web page (www.thinds.com/jmh/ehell) chronicles lapses in politeness no matter where they may occur, said instant messages violate the American sense of private space. "Even in the office, we think of our personal space as being a 5-foot radius around ourselves," she said. "Instant messages come blaring into the space, and it's an invasion."

Overburdened by an avalanche of electronic communications -- the typical corporate employee sends and receives 201 messages a day and may be interrupted as often as every 10 minutes, according to a study released this year by Pitney Bowes -- many workers say they cannot handle any more. So they are going to great lengths to hide from a form of electronic communication that should, in theory, make their jobs easier.

"Whenever you have a new communications medium, it takes some time to learn to use it politely," said Robert Bacal, an independent communications consultant who specializes in defusing hostile situations in the workplace. "It took years, for instance, for telephone etiquette to become ingrained in people's minds." Bacal, by the way, refuses to use instant messages.

Many new users may not understand how to address people politely using instant messages. "If you watch a little child try to use the phone, just sitting there in silence or else talking to the family dog instead of the person on the phone," he said, "you get an idea of how some people are behaving with instant messages in the workplace."

Instant messages were not nearly so intrusive before they moved into the cubicle. "Instant messages are what we call a viral thing, something that started coming into the workplace on its own," said Michael Sheridan, a vice president for strategy at Novell, which added an instant-message feature to its Groupwise network software product more than a year ago. "You frequently can't control a social phenomenon like this, so you kind of have to not fight it. But it's time for the company to embrace it so there can be appropriate controls."

To be sure, instant messages can be a useful communications tool for colleagues who may be geographically remote but still must work closely. "We have one customer with offices in both North America and in South America who reduced their yearly long-distance phone bill by $28,000 because of instant messaging," said Lee Todd, the senior director for the Lotus Sametime instant-message and instant-meeting product. "Instead of calling South America and leaving voice mail 10 times a day, which you have to pay for each time, they used instant messages to communicate."

All three leading makers of network software -- Novell, Lotus and Microsoft -- have incorporated features into their instant-message programs to allow users to decide who can reach them and when. A person can arrange to have electronic notes, which bring to mind stick-on paper notes, sent out in response to instant messages to signal that the person is away from the desk or in a meeting until 4 p.m. (or just hiding out). But it can be hard to hide out if the person who is sending you a message is sitting in the same office.

"Or you could just turn it off," said Surdulescu, of Trilogy Software. "But I guess that kind of defeats the point."

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