Instant messaging tools like AIM or ICQ allow users to text each other in real time, and to exchange quick messages. Can you imagine something more disruptive than a text message that appears on your screen while you are trying to concentrate? Well, a recent paper by Garrett & Danziger (http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol13/issue1/garrett.html) will make you think again. The paper, published in one of the top peer-reviewed academic journals dealing with online communication, the Journal of Computer Mediated Communication, finds that IM users actually report that they experience fewer interruptions than non-IM users. Moreover, it looks like IM users are actually more effective online communicators.
The findings are based on a national telephone survey that covered over 900 US based employees. Some might criticize the methodology used, that of asking employees about their level of interruptions, versus measuring that level directly. Others might find other flaws in the study. I, on the other hand, am not surprised, and think that these findings are important and interesting. I always felt that Information Overload is not a result of using this or that technology, but rather that it is a result of how we manage our information use.
I am not surprised to see that employees who are using IM do not necessarily increase their communicative overload. If a tool like IM is used strategically, it can actually be used to resolve small issues in a very time efficient manner; It is also considered much more polite to send a one-line IM, in comparison to sending a one-liner email that might seem abrupt and possibly impolite; IM usually comes from a “white list” of names, so spam is much less of an issue; Various IM tools offer the ability to perform additional tasks such as send files, switch to VoIP, manage your online availability, etc.
Is IM the solution to Information Overload? Of course not. The main message I take from this study is that no technology is deterministically good or bad in regards to Information Overload. It is about how you use the technology, and how it fits in with your organization’s culture. And, yes, sometimes the same technology that overloads one user and drives him or her mad might be another user’s tool to reduce overload. The former will probably become a non-user, and the latter will adopt the technology enthusiastically. And what will happen when these two want to communicate with each other? That is already a topic for another blog posting.