Josh's INET independent study, Spring 2006

My semester-long journal guiding all my readers through the independent study I am doing as part of the Internet Studies minor with Professor Hickey at Brandeis.

Location: Waltham, Massachusetts, United States

March 30, 2006

How Distracting are IMs?

Instant Messaging: Effects of Relevance and Timing

The purpose of this article is to determine just how distracting IMs can be to someone who is trying to accomplish various tasks on the computer. After reviewing the main benefits of IMing (seeing when personal contacts are available, instantaneous communication, and being capable of holding multiple conversations at once), the article focuses on a study of certain people's reactions to IM disruptions.

The first experiment was to show at which point in a task people are the most disrupted. During this experiment, participants were given the task of looking at stock prices and deciding if/when to sell the stocks. The only catch was that they would receive IMs randomly throughout this task, either while beginning the task, accessing tools, or manipulating the content of their files. In the end, the results showed that people were faster at disengaging from the task at hand when the IM came during its early stages rather than during the intermediate and finishing stages. It was found that once a task had been started, it then required a lot more focus and the people were not going to let an IM distract them.

The second experiment was similar. It involved people trying to accomplish some computer task that included three phases: planning, execution, and evaluation. The IMs that would eventually pop up on their screens were either relevant or irrelevant to the task at hand and could appear during any of those afforementioned phases. What became evident as a result of this experiment was that the irrelevant IMs took people longer to process, and therefore made it harder for the workers to get back to their original task after the interruption occurred.

The results of the second experiment support those from the first one. If a worker is to have an IM (or more than one) sent to him while working, it will be more disruptive if it is at the very beginning of the task because he/she will not yet be fully engaged in it. While it was found that receiving IMs relevant to work are less distracting, the experiments still revealed that people will most likely end up ignoring irrelevant IMs when they are in the middle of an assignment, which I suppose is good news for most companies out there.

March 22, 2006

Privacy Concerns

Instant Messaging and Privacy

This content of this article is based on a study of various people from a multitude of backgrounds. The study is about IM privacy with regards to non-contacts (someone whose screen name you don't know), availability, and content. Most of the participants in this study were not too concerned with privacy when using IM, realizing that there is not much privacy online in the first place. The only person to have a public profile when online was the participant that is a college student. This could be the case merely because most college kids want to socialize and "advertise themselves", as the article states. Most people are extremely careful about who they add to their list of contacts because the privacy barriers greatly differ depending on whether or not you actually know the person.

Regarding availability at work, most subjects try to seem as available as possible to their co-workers in order to collaborate on team projects. Additionally, they pay more attention to the availability of fellow co-workers on their contact list (or buddy list, on AIM). In order to help people see one's availability at work, one can put up a status indicator, such as an away message.

People typically include friends and family on their contact lists at work, and, while their attention is focused on work-related issues, there are occassional side conversations with friends and family going on as well, usually serving as a break at work. Home is typically brought into the workplace rather than the opposite. At home, most people don't want to be in contact with co-workers since they do not want work to invade their personal lives. The downside of having co-workers on a contact list at work is that most people do not want to have their bosses and supervisors on this list. People would prefer if their bosses do not always know the extent of their availability while at work (or home, too).

The subjects also realized that IM conversations at work can be monitored by administrators, saved by the other person involved, or forwarded to a third party. However, there is a general reasonable expectation that conversations will only be read by the intended recipient. As a result of the fear in the back of their minds, most workers try to avoid saying anything in an IM conversation that could be detrimental to them in the future. In general, for very in-depth important conversations, people still resort to either using the phone or meeting face-to-face to have a conversation. IM can be come across as being extremely impersonal. The other fear that some people seem to have is that others may take a glance at their screen and secretly read parts of conversations. At work, people tend to minimize the IM windows when they see that a co-worker is walking by.

Since many people are concerned with how they appear to others, the article suggests that IM systems allow their users to manage the impression they project through IMs to various groups of people. There should be separate profiles for students, managers, and home users, fo instance. If someone puts his phone number in his profile, he should be able to choose who has access to that information. People need to know what information about themselves others can access.

March 14, 2006

Group Chat at Work

What Is Chat Doing in the Workplace?

This article mostly discusses the concept of group chatting, such as chat rooms, within a work setting. The research is based on a study of how six global work groups functioned over a 17 month span. The reason behind this article is that chatting through a computer has become increasingly more prevalent at work, especially for global companies. E-mail is no longer the best method of communication, even between extremely long distances around the world. Most people prefer "real time" communication to e-mail now: "On the heels of tremendous popularity among recreational users, synchronous messaging applications are beginning to show up at work," says the article.

Since a one-on-one instant message conversation can be distracting and even annoying at times (especially when an IM window suddenly pops up on the screen and draws one's attention to it), the authors' research argues that chat rooms are more beneficial to workers because they can choose whether or not to participate in the group conversation based on the surrounding context within it. One of the focuses of this article is regarding the actual content of conversations taking place inside these afforementioned chat rooms. Not surprisingly, the majority of messages (69%) were work-related. Interestingly, 13% of the messages dealt with the availability of others, which supports the idea that chatting online is just a way to arrange for more "real" interactions, such as phone calls or face-to-face meetings. There was a also a small precentage of messages that were non-work related and meant to be humorous. One of the findings in the study was that as the day progresses (mid-late afternoon), there is a sharp increase in the amount of humor related messages that are sent. Perhaps people are burnt out from real work throughout the whole morning and into the afternoon that they need to joke around a bit before the work days ends for their own sanity.

While this study is strictly focused on group chat, conversing one-on-one can create a greater temptation to discuss non-work issues, such as sports, family, gossip, etc. because people may think that a regular IM with one person is more private. As stated earlier, an IM window can be slightly more intrusive compared to a group chat window that includes many conversations going on at once between many people. In the workplace, people typically feel more obliged to respond immediately to an IM from someone rather than casually follow along in conversation whenever is necessary, like in a chat room.