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“Always Away” for plausible deniability

I’ve noticed this myself over the past few years. As more and more of my friends come online “all the time” and/or have connections at work, they leave their chat clients open and set to “Away”.

It has exactly its intended consequence. I don’t write them unless I have something I need to send them – something that is necessary but not formal enough for an email (strange concept, email being too formal – here I was thinking I was older/wiser now…). The other people (grouped at the top of my list in green) are “Available” and cognitively, to me, much more ready to receive a funny link or interesting news blurb.

Annalee Newitz writes:

More importantly, I can avoid unwanted chatter that interrupts my workflow. I do this by deploying a form of IM etiquette that I call “always away.” IM clients allow you to specify a status that gets displayed to other people using IM, and the defaults are things like “available” or “away.” I always set my status to “away,” sometimes adding a phrase like “working” or “fighting aliens.” Most of my colleagues do the same thing (except for the fighting aliens part). This allows me to have plausible deniability when I need to ignore a purely social message that interrupts my workflow. After all, I might really be gone. But I can respond when a colleague messages me about something important.

On the longer article at AlterNet – she opens with:

My social world is divided into two camps: people who use instant messaging and people who don’t. When I start my workday by booting up my computer, I consider myself to have arrived at the office when my IM program comes to life and is suddenly populated by dozens of tiny names and faces.

I find this interesting because it’s not wrong, but it’s not quite as nuanced as danah boyd’s point from two-and-a-half years ago about the culture divide in instant messaging:

To most of my friends, i appear always-on. If i’m not on the computer, my IMs usually go to my Sidekick. I have a round-the-clock presence on AIM, even if frequently idle. I share this round-the-clockness with some of my buddies – people who always appear to be on, although sometimes idle. There are other buddies who pop up whenever they’re on their computer (often 9-5). Then, there are those who pop up very occasionally.

The thing about members of this latter category is that they *always* want to talk when they come online. This makes sense – they’re appearing online only to talk, not to share presence. They are seeing IM as a communication tool first and foremost.

Interestingly, it is this group that complains the most about how they can never get anything done when IM is on. I try really hard not to respond in a snarky voice that i can never get anything done when they’re on. They get upset when i don’t have time to talk, arguing that i shouldn’t be online if i don’t want to talk.

There is, in fact, a culture divide in instant messaging.

So it seems that there are four groups?

  • Non-On’s,
  • Occasionally-On’s (drive-by IM) (attention snatchers),
  • work-related Usually-On’s (9-5), and
  • Always-On’s (presence broadcasters).

Do you see yourself in any of those four? Is the new medium creating new norms in your workplace? In your home workplace? Are you an attention snatcher and confused/upset when people don’t write you back? These questions are more mainstream than even a couple years ago. When everyone’s mobile phone has wifi – will we be more savvy about this stuff? Do you broadcast your presence at all?

Of course, none of these presence discussions would be complete without a link to this related phenomenon – the buddy pounce. Oh people hate that. :)

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  1. tarheelcoxn | October 16, 2007 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

    # Always-On’s (presence broadcasters).

    I’m in this group. I use irssi (a curses-based IRC chat client) with
    bitlbee (a gateway server to AIM/oscar, jabber, etc.) to do all my
    chat. I leave irssi running inside a screen session so that whenever I
    have ssh and a terminal emulator available I have chat. Since my mail
    client is mutt (also curses-based), I leave it in the same screen
    session. If I’m looking at email, I’m three keystrokes away from my
    chat client.

    This doesn’t quite jive with everybody else in the office, in part
    because of an antagonism towards IRC, but also in part because I think
    that several key figures are in this camp:

    # work-related Usually-On’s (9-5)

    They use Adium, guard access to their nicks, and use chat for (a)
    things that aren’t appropriate to say aloud, (b) talking without being
    overheard, or (c) pasting long URLs quickly.

    It confuses me a bit, since we all work essentially in the same
    capacity: sysadmin and helpdesk. Suggestions on how to ameliorate the
    culture clash would be most welcome.

  2. Terrell Russell | October 17, 2007 at 1:57 am | Permalink


    Do they mark themselves as “Away”? It seems that’s where the culture clash exists.

    IRC participation/involvement is its own beast. I think that IM/chat have definitely taken over the mindshare that was owned by IRC for a while – but you must admit, IRC is *not* mainstream by any stretch of the imagination. If/when I show people that I’m connected and sitting in a “room” with people from all over the world – they’re amazed and a little creeped out. It doesn’t usually affect their opinion much when I point out that their AIM or GTalk app is doing the same thing. “But those are my friends”. Apparently that makes all the difference…

  3. Fred | October 17, 2007 at 8:23 am | Permalink

    Interesting line of thought – we’re definitely seeing norm formation as more of us are online, all of the time. Here are a few I notice –

    First might be that IM is losing immediacy/synchrony – since we know that we’re going to be continually copresent with our buddies, we can get back to them on our schedule. This is a little different from a few years ago where a buddy might only sign on for a short amount of time to IM us.

    Second is that we’re treating IM more like email. Its a way we know we can leave a message for you on your desktop when you return. Seeing as everyone has 30 email addresses and Facebook and etc IM still remains a method of somewhat reliable, direct communication.

    While some of the problems danah describes still exist, I believe that more of us are internalizing these new, casual uses of IM. Its almost like IM has shifted from the “full-synchrony” (i.e. cell phone conversation-like) to the partial-synchrony norms of text messaging. Which is sort of interesting because IM have always been text messages.

  4. Terrell Russell | October 17, 2007 at 10:40 am | Permalink

    Well – yes, I think we’re definitely getting to the point where we realize that all our communication is getting filtered in the same way once it enters our heads – and we design our tech around that.

    GMail already puts your chat logs into the history with your email correspondence. It’s strangely comforting to have all that in the same place and available via search – nonwithstanding the creepy factor of seeing all your ‘instant’ communication saved forever. That’s those norms again – they aren’t shifting fast enough to prevent the creepy from being there.

    Perhaps there’s something here – we demarcate the stuff that was interesting/personal (bookmarks, email to us, chat logs, phone calls, our photos, videos) and save it slightly differently than ‘everything we’ve ever seen’ – but all of it is searchable later.

    How long we looking at for that. 10 years? 15?

  5. tarheelcoxn | October 17, 2007 at 1:10 pm | Permalink


    Yes, they set themselves to always be away, and I’m not being totally accurate when I say that they’re only on 9-5. Basically these folks are logged on when they’re logged in and using their laptops, which is more like 9am to 9pm.

    I, on the other hand, am logged in 24/7. I think the conflict is that they still have a paradigm of immediacy. Their clients flash and bounce and do other visually stimulating things to let them know they have a message. Mine just sits there. I have to be looking for new messages to see them.

    For me to focus and not be distracted by chat, all I have to do is not switch to that screen window. For them it’s… more difficult somehow?

  6. PomeRantz | October 25, 2007 at 8:55 pm | Permalink

    The idea of email being too formal led to my favorite headline of all time: E-Mail is for Old People

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  1. […] on This Old Network, Terrell Russell riffs on some thoughts about IM. At the end he lists four different functional groups of IM users. I definitely fall under the […]