04 The Flaws of Near-Time Communication

Near-Time Communication, be it email, instant messaging, or whatever comes next, is continuous, spontaneous, fractured, unfocused, and shallow. These five flaws create a negative feedback loop. They feed each other and create a snowball effect. Near-Time Communication is not just a poor form of communication — the more we use it, the worse it becomes.

Near-Time Communication happens all the time — it is always present. One might consider this a positive trait, but its implications are devastating. If email and instant messaging are “always on,” we are also expected to be. We are expected to be online and responsive. Even if no one says that explicitly, this expectation is an inherent part of how Near-Time Communication works: from popup notifications to the online presence indicators and read receipts. Most of these features can be turned off, but this is nothing more than Band-Aids trying to overcome the nature of these platforms and the default mindset derived from their implementation. 

Yet, email and instant messaging are not just “always-on.” Many of the discussions we are having using these platforms are also continuous; some are practically endless. Textual conversations are generally not limited in time, and some never reach a clear bottom line. What starts as a simple question or statement can quickly turn into a thread with dozens or more messages, and each can spin off into a side thread. A “conversation” could pop and re-pop in your inbox for days and weeks until someone finally decides to kill the thread and turn it into a face-to-face discussion by setting up a meeting. 

While email and instant messaging were designed as asynchronous tools, in the typical scenario, they create a sense of urgency that compels most people, in most cases, to respond in a short time. It is certainly not a real-time conversation, but we do a great deal to make it as close as possible to the real thing. This is to say that instead of gaining more control over when we communicate and with whom, we have become more reactive and spontaneous. 

Spontaneity doesn’t allow us to deeply understand and analyze what we read and then organize our thoughts. When we are engaged in multiple conversations at any given time, this becomes an even more significant problem. We can receive a new message, question, or reply spontaneously from any number of active discussions. We feel compelled to respond promptly, and the result is that we often have zero capacity to process the new information and develop a well-thought-out, well-phrased response. The hectic nature of Near-Time Communication discourages us from taking the time to maximize the value of what we share. The message is clear: respond quickly and move on to the following thread. If you take some time to process your response, you risk losing your chance to participate in the discourse. You lose your chance to influence it. If you are not quick enough, you might as well not play the game. 

When we communicate with the aim to create, solve a problem, or identify an opportunity, we need time. Phrasing ideas, contemplating, challenging, and refining them is rarely immediate. Quick, spontaneous messages are the opposite of meaningful communication, but unfortunately, they are inherent to Near-Time Communication. 

With the never-ending, hectic, and spontaneous communication we are engaged in and the sense of urgency the near-time platforms create, it is no wonder we try to be brief in our writing. But while being brief is generally not a bad idea, Near-Time Communication often forces us to be too brief. And this has a tremendous toll on the effectiveness of our conversations. When taken to the extreme, brevity fractures our communication. Sometimes, it feels like receiving random jigsaw puzzle pieces and trying to understand the complete picture. Occasionally, each participant sends fragments of a different picture altogether. 

The best-case scenario is that each message reveals a new part of the picture and clarifies the idea. In the worst (and not rare) case, some messages take us back and change our understanding of something we thought we had already nailed. You might hope things will become clearer after ten or twenty such back-and-forth statements, questions, and replies, but they rarely do. Even if all the messages are coherent and gradually create a solid idea, keeping track of the logic of this fractured discourse is practically impossible. 

A fractured conversation can never be effective. It is hard to follow and often incomplete. When you consider that the conversation is not limited in time and that any participant can add new information and insights arbitrarily, you end up with a lot of energy invested in just keeping track of the discussion instead of thinking about what you are trying to achieve. There is simply no way to structure an argument when the text is based on short fragments conceived and consumed sporadically. To make things worse, in many cases, this long, unstructured text created over time by multiple people is the only record left from the discussion. If you or someone else ever needs to retrieve this information, it will be extremely difficult to decipher. 

When the conversation is unstructured, bits of ideas, data, questions, and insights are shared spontaneously, and when the end of the discussion is often not visible, it is just a matter of time until everyone starts to lose focus. Near-Time Communication threads usually feel like they are all over the place. Instead of gradually converging toward a well-defined conclusion, each message might take us on a slightly different path. No one facilitates near-time discussions and therefore, no one can guarantee all messages being exchanged will be aligned. But that is the relatively manageable part of the problem. 

Much of what we write in emails and even more so in instant messages is practically a brain dump, if only because we don’t have time to process and organize our thoughts. This is not to say that we write nonsense. But generally speaking, we don’t invest in the writing itself. No matter how good an idea is, when we write it spontaneously, we often fail to phrase it well, and as a result, the text loses its focus. We mostly know what we wish to say, but this is hardly enough when communicating with others. How we articulate an idea is at least as important as the idea itself. 

Each person participating in the conversation might add to the overall defocusing effect. So, even if your original email was perfectly phrased and super clear, the first cycle of responses is likely to defocus the entire discussion. Or at least it will require quite an effort (much more than we typically invest in Near-Time Communication) to keep everyone on track. 

As a discussion loses focus, there is a greater chance it will take longer to conclude. More messages will be sent, and ideas will become more fractured. In parallel, new information, insights, and responses will be shared spontaneously. Under these conditions, the chances of regaining focus are poor, and the snowball effect will amplify each of these flaws. 

Remember: when communication is ineffective, it doesn’t get better with time — it gets worse.

As a direct result of Near-Time Communication being continuous, spontaneous, fractured, and defocused, our conversations become exceptionally shallow. We cannot have a deep and meaningful conversation when we keep jumping from one thread to another and don’t have time to process inputs, gather our thoughts, and phrase them effectively. We cannot express profound ideas when everything and everyone pushes us to be brief. When responding quickly to keep the conversation flowing is favored over thinking things through, the outcome is invariably superficial. And when our communication is shallow, the work that relies on it is suboptimal at best. 

The flaws of Near-Time Communication are a combination of design and usage that feed each other. In theory, we can overcome these flaws and make email and instant messaging bounded in time, more planned and less spontaneous, more structured, and more focused. In theory. In reality, email and instant messaging are inherently fractured and spontaneous mediums, quickly turning them into continuous and unfocused forms of communication. We can try to fight the nature of these platforms, just like we can probably try to write and publish a novel on Twitter. Technically, it’s possible, but it is far from being natural or effective. 

Effective communication requires space and bandwidth. We must have time to gather information, process it, develop insights, and consider how to articulate them. Ideas have to be well-phrased; ideas have to be challenged and refined. If communication provides us the food we need to work together effectively, Near-Time Communication provides us nothing more than fast food. It seems to get the job done in the short term, but we cannot live and thrive on it for long. The more we rely on it, the greater the long-term damage we’ll experience. 

We need a better way to feed our brains with information, insights, and ideas to do the best work we can.

Reflection and Practice

Pick an average-sized email thread or chat conversation from the past week in which you and your partners tried to achieve something together. Read the text from the latest message backward and identify the flaws of Near-Time Communication. 

Pick a meeting you attended in the past week that you felt was ineffective. Consider how the flaws of Near-Time Communication have influenced how the meeting was managed, how information and ideas were exchanged, and whether you and your partners have managed to reach a bottom line.

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