03 The Emergence of Near-Time Communication

Imagine a world where you can have a conversation with someone even if they are unavailable right now. Imagine a world where you could do that with dozens of people in parallel. Instead of finding a time when everyone is available to have a meeting, you can just write whatever you had in mind, send it, and get a response once people are free to read it. Imagine a world where such conversations are not only free from the boundaries of time but are also not confined to any physical location. You can interact with your colleagues from the other side of the world. Imagine a world where meetings are not the first option for interacting. You can share your ideas, ask questions, and have a conversation without the need to get everyone’s attention simultaneously. As a participant in such a discussion, you can respond when the time is right for you. Imagine a purely asynchronous world. 

Adopting email as a first-class tool should have solved the scalability problem of Real-Time Communication. Email was never meant to be an immediate form of communication. It should have allowed us to take the time to respond on our terms. It promised more effective communication, even if only because it made communication so easy. You no longer had to schedule meetings and then drop everything else and attend them when the time comes. Email enabled us to communicate whenever, wherever, and with whomever we wanted without getting up from our desks. It enabled us to have zero-friction interactions. And then, it got out of control. 

The more widespread email became, the harder it was to get things done. Instead of communicating when it suits us, we are now engaged in a constant conversation, leaving little to no time for meaningful, deep work — the work we are supposed to deliver. Email has enabled us to communicate more, but not in a good sense. We are lighter on the trigger because email is so easy to send. When our communication is mainly based on email, we are less happy and more stressed, and in a perfect correlation, we, our colleagues, our teams, and the organizations we work for achieve less. What should have been the holy grail of communication became a double-edged sword with dramatic negative results. 

But even if we put aside all these adverse side effects (and we shouldn’t really), email is a poor communication method. Even if our sole intention is to share an idea, get information, solve a problem together, or get some collective insight, email is one of the least effective platforms we can use. It is just not designed to enable a real, meaningful conversation. At least not as we commonly use it today. 

Not long after email became a standard communication method, we turned it into a textual replacement for real-time conversations. It is delayed but assumes (or demands) a high level of responsiveness. It is textual, but unlike other textual content, it is threaded and often includes nested chains of statements, counter-statements, questions, and replies. At the same time, it is flat in that everything appears urgent or has the same priority. It is not organized as any other text you would read and process. Email should have allowed us a high level of asynchrony, but instead, we treat it almost always as a synchronous way of communicating without anything in its design to support that. 

And then came instant messaging and made our interactions even worse. If email is a poor substitute for Real-Time Communication, instant messaging is email on steroids. Dialogues and conversations became more intensive. The overhead of sharing anything with any number of people became even smaller. Messages became shorter, and the information they embedded became more volatile. We were expected to be even more responsive to instant messaging than we ever were to emails (they are, after all, “instant”). Soon, text-based chats have replaced meetings, emails, and even informal, real-time interactions. 

Email and instant messaging are often referred to as “Asynchronous Communication,” but this term is misleading. Technically, both these platforms could be used asynchronously. Occasionally, they are. But for the most part, we use email and instant messaging to replace real-time conversations without considering that they are a poor substitute for face-to-face interactions. I prefer to call this type of communication Near-Time Communication.

Near-Time Communication is any method that tries to simulate Real-Time Communication without being immediate and direct. Sadly, with the attempt to emulate real-time interactions using non-real-time platforms, communication has become severely compromised.

Reflection and Practice

Pick a chat-based conversation you had in the past week designed to achieve something concrete and not trivial. Consider the following questions: 

  • How easy was it to understand what your partners were saying?
  • How easy was it to explain what you had in mind?
  • How many times have you and your partners had to drop something else you were doing and attend to it?

Consider the same questions in the context of an email-based conversation you had in the past week. 

In the upcoming days, pick one issue you are considering discussing with others via chat or email and set up a face-to-face meeting instead. Think in advance about what you wish to achieve and what you will share. Plan to achieve a concrete outcome during a single session.

Don’t expect this meeting to be perfect; we already know that not every meeting is. Instead, notice the differences between the nature of the face-to-face discussion and how a similar text-based conversation has evolved.

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