Something interesting has happened in the field of personal communications and in its subtle way it is affecting both business and personal life. I'm referring to
the way we can now be aware that a contact or friend is online and available — but
is choosing to ignore us.
From the cleft stick to
the penny post to the
mobile phone, for millennia, when people have sent communications, they have been left to imagine if their note has been opened or
read or if a person with whom they want to communicate is absent — or present and preferring not to respond.
Email made no difference.
In fact, an ignored email is especially frustrating. Some email systems have a (usually hidden) 'confirm receipt' facility, but these are little used, and useless because they rely on the receiver co-operating. Most of us know which of our associates and friends are good email repliers, and which are unreliable. And obviously those who are consistently flaky are the least likely to agree to a rather intrusive 'confirm receipt' protocol.
But then came Skype and, soon after, Facebook Chat and a raft of similar messaging services, all with a crucial difference. Now, for the first time, you could see which
of your friends were at their screen. And that meant we had to make a conscious decision to acknowledge
their presence — or ignore it.
I first realised how important this was last summer, when my daughter moved to the US and, at the same time, I was involved in a complicated
and sometimes fraught business negotiation with an associate in Sweden. Each time I opened Skype, I could see both my daughter and my awkward Swede were online. What to do? With my daughter, I felt compelled to call or message. It subsequently took us months to establish a rhythm of coexisting online, knowing we were a click away from
one another, but not always communicating. With the Swede, I felt embarrassed.
It just seemed weird to be in the same 'room' as him and ignore him, but it was the best plan given the tricky nature of our negotiation.
Both scenarios were a modern variation on the old office etiquette thing of knowing how many times in one day you can say 'Hi' to
(or ignore) the same person — and when it's acceptable to walk by without a greeting.
This online version of office etiquette was complicated enough, until this year, when an amusing and very tech aware Spanish friend with whom I had been exchanging a mass of texts, suggested we stop burning up our phone bills and use instead a 69p phone app called WhatsApp Messenger.
WhatsApp — currently the world's most popular paid-for iPhone app — allows you to text, send photos, video and voice clips free using WiFi, or
at minimal cost by 3G. It works internationally and cross-platform, so you can send from any smartphone to any other. And it's very good indeed. The app roots through your phone contacts, finding out who else is on WhatsApp and takes you to a world of comms joy.
Or pain. "Aha, the game begins," Spanish friend texted darkly as we began. The problem with WhatsApp is that you can see which of your friends is currently online — and not on your computer, but on your phone — which is almost as intimate as it would be if they were in your brain.
I have a dozen or so regular WhatsApp contacts around the world and, as Maria hinted, it is unsettling when you see they are online — but seemingly ignoring you, even if they are just busy with something else.
There's also something I find quite spooky, which is when you open WhatsApp and see a friend immediately go offline, as if they were dodging behind a pillar by the water cooler. Equally creepy, you can see exactly when each friend was last online. So you send a friendly text at 9am, get no reply, but see that the friend has been online since you texted and not replied. By the same mechanism, it's extremely hard on WhatsApp not to seem like a stalker. You're texting with someone, another friend comes online... and you think they think you're lurking around waiting for them.
So WhatsApp is not just a great new kind of communication, but also a new type of social game, as I was warned. Not
for the sensitive. And bound
to become more common
as a communications model, so watch out.
Jonathan Margolis's daily tech updates can be seen at twitter.com/SimplyBestTech.
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