Phone vs email vs text chats on IM (instant messaging)

Phone vs e-mail

Alon and I usually shy away from handling things over the phone because it requires coordination (especially when you have different time zones), breaks up our work-flow, and isn't self documenting.

In fact, when I'm working I usually put my phone on silent and as far from reach as possible because nothing breaks up my concentration like a phone call. E-mail I can send and reply to in my own sweet time. A phone demands your attention this very instance. Drop everything and talk to me right now!

But even I can admit that just picking up the phone has its advantages sometimes. Under the right circumstances.

In a phone call it's easier to just wing it and have a quick interactive exchange. That's good for getting a feeling for the issues and getting both sides in the same ballpark (or realizing that won't happen). You can't iterate to that point as quickly via e-mail as it's non interactive. The exchange would take longer.

After that e-mail can take over as the discussion becomes less exploratory and more detail oriented. It's also easier to follow up on.

What about instant messaging?

I think of instant messaging as a middle point between phone calls and e-mail.

Like e-mail, instant messaging is a written medium so you don't have to worry about understanding accents (just spelling), and it's super easy to keep records of chats (we save all our chat logs in a Git repository).

Like a phone call, instant messaging is immediate and interactive. You can feel things out in real-time. On the other hand, that means coordination is still required.

For long private conversations I find instant messaging to be far preferable to phone calls because chats are less intrusive and much less tiring. You can easily do other things while waiting for someone to join a multi-user chat room. If you're not leading the conversation, it's easier to keep a loose eye on things. For most people a phone call is something that demands full attention just to keep up. With a text chat if you miss anything you can rewind the conversation by scrolling up.

Besides convention I think the main reasons people don't use instant messaging for serious discussions as often as phone calls is that:

  1. The phone system is universal: you can talk to anyone from anywhere. You don't have to think about location, the type of phone, software compatibility, protocols, etc.
  2. Setting up a chat with a stranger can be a bit of a hassle: What IM network are you on? Do you have an XMPP client? Do you know how to join a multi-user chat? Why isn't our key-exchange handshake working?

The best way I've found around this problem is to setup a Web gateway to your XMPP server so that users don't have to mess around with native chat clients and can just use their browsers instead. Then you can just hand out an URL.

Now you know why we put the excellent Speeqe web chat application into TurnKey ejabberd.

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