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Changing communication

Published 01 November 2020 at Yours, Kewbish. 2373 words. Subscribe via RSS.

Introduction

Online school is both a blessing and a curse when dealing with questions I have to ask. Do I email, or use Teams? Do I wait to ask in class, with the thought that class might not touch on the topic at all when we get there? When do I email? Do I ask classmates first, or wait?

Generally, for smaller things like scheduling matters where absolutely no one seems to know what’s going on, I end up emailing.

Hello, so and so.
Hope you are doing well.
When is xyz?

-Thanks,
Emilie

or something along those lines. After a bit of waiting and internal panic1, the person will get back to me with a detailed (or not) answer. That’s all well and good, but now I have to thank them. Or do I thank them? Do I send an entire email, knowing this person is probably being flooded with other emails, with a one line Thank you! - Emilie?

Sometimes, or most of the time, probably, the answer to that question is indeed yes. But it always feels a mite awkward and unnecessary to initiate a whole email for a thank-you. However, there’ll be that nagging voice in my head reminding me that they should be thanked, so I do it anyway.

Perhaps the issue with this is that I’m used to more instant, less official forms of contact. Email is not a chat app to me, but I feel like most of my interactions are focused on the model of a chat app, where I ask a questions quickly and get a reply just as casually. I don’t have an inbox to comb through, and replies feel less concrete. In Telegram, for example, replies are a swipe away. Each message contains a lot less information than a standard email.

In this post, I’d like to share some of my thoughts regarding replies, chatting / information sharing, and threading styles in some of the apps and communication tools that I use regularly.

Encouraged Threads

This post will mainly focus on five apps or services: email, Teams, Discord, Slack and Telegram.

Email is a good starting point, I feel. In email, conversations are usually more long-form and self-contained. One person fleshes out a complete idea or question and then sends it off, and then someone replies. Individual messages are (word count wise) longer than messages in chatting apps. I suppose this reflects the initial model that email was based on: physical mail. It’d be horribly inconvenient to send a single word letter all the way to your friend in another province or state.

On the same line of convenience, I find that the form of email works well, especially when people articulate thoughts clearly, and I don’t have to send follow up emails to ask for a one-word clarification. I also find that email has started to drift as the focus of where I spend time - instead of sitting with my inbox open all day (which you’re recommended not to do anyway), I sit with my chat apps open. (Not all day, but when I’m doing less focused things, or in terms of checking frequency, anyway). Perhaps this move towards more instant-gratification, quick-response chat apps is freeing up email inboxes at the expense of having to check multiple apps a day.

Email threads feel more solid, in a way, than Discord chains of replies. Maybe it’s because I receive less email than I do pings on Discord, so they appear more sparse and infrequent.

Another application that focuses more on threaded conversations, I find, is Teams2. I was originally rather put off by the fact that each individual message appears with such a large margin and such a large message box, but I’ve come to realize this is because Teams instead encourages threads, and concrete conversations. It feels like a balance between email and chatting apps, especially with the fact that Teams now has the ability to make message headers and attach things.

In the beginning of the lockdown, when Teams was new to my peers and I, I noticed that people would send messages like they would on Discord or Hangouts: one line at a time. Instead of, as a more email-like format, expanding on their idea or response in one message, they’d break it up into three or four. It was a bit confusing to orient ourselves to this new chat-app-like interface with a email-like style of communication.

I found that Teams did clarify this encouragement towards threads when they made the ‘New conversation’ box a button instead, and hid the response box unless focusing on a reply box. This made it more clear that the mode of usage was to be more focused on longer-form replies.

A long scroll

On the other hand, Discord, and to some extent, Telegram at times, feels more snappy. Not in terms of performance or loading, but in terms of conversation speed. It’s more likely that you have multiple people typing at a time, responding to one thing. Individual messages aren’t spaced so far apart, making it ambiguous if we’re to have long, essay-style responses in a message. I think that my peers and I have grown up at a time where shorter, more line break heavy communication is the standard though, so I never found Discord’s intended method of communication confusing. Discord’s threading is also not quite threading. It’s more apt to term them replies, I think. They incentivize more quick, one sentence replies, which is an interesting model of communication.

Discord’s threading and reply system leaves a lot to be desired when compared to other forms like Slack, in my opinion. I can’t quickly navigate to replies, especially when replies were made to messages sent ages ago, or after a long interlude with the inevitable flood of unrelated messages. I have to open the search menu to copy paste the message to find context, which is a bit more friction than I’d like for looking at messages.

On the other hand, Telegram does an interesting job of putting replies into context. Replying involves fewer clicks (or maybe that’s just perceived clicking) than on Discord, especially on mobile, where a simple swipe to reply works. On Discord, instead, I have to long tap and quote. The little scroll to bottom button won’t scroll you to the bottom if you click on an original message that was replied to. Instead, it takes you to the reply from which you clicked to the original message. This involves a bit of jumping, but it’s infinitely less work than Discord’s reply system.

On Telegram, messages are just as short-form as Discord messages, which allows for the same short interactions that occur with Discord. When contrasted with email or other longer-form messaging, it might seem a lot faster without as many reply or threading features, but I think Slack falls quite well in between both realms.

The in between

Slack is an interesting app that, to me, falls right between the quick, short messages of Discord, and the long replies of email or Teams. Slack is really what you make of it - I’ve joined three or four Slacks that all had different styles of communication. Some revolved heavily around the reply system, making it more like Teams but with the ability to have shorter replies as integrated. Others never used threads, instead working just within single messages sent in quick bursts.

Slack also adds the thread message aggregation feature that’s not a part of how Discord or Telegram’s reply system works. I think that’s more of a fundamental, base level difference than a feature parity thing, though. It’s interesting how messages within threads can be popped out and viewed together, and threads linked together with message links and the like. It’s possible to do this on Discord and Telegram with message links, but it’s not possible on email (or Teams, at least as far as I know). This gives a more sprawling view of the conversations happening together, which can be a bit of a clickhole situation at times, but might be useful for tracking histories and finding information. It’s also interesting how, in Slack, thread messages can be sent to the channel as well. This kind of blurs the line between single message only Slacks, and heavily threaded Slacks.

I find that single message Slacks tend to be the ones with fewer people and less need to moderate and keep everything organized. Only a few messages are sent each day, if that, so it’s easier to find and collect the information you need. Larger, more corporate-y Slacks fall more towards the threading model, which probably makes it easier for people to participate in subconversations and keep the pinging and notification spam to a minimum.

Changing how we communicate

On Discord and Telegram, I find myself breaking up my thoughts into shorter sentences, or even subsentences. I’m not entirely sure where I picked up this habit, but maybe it has to do with the fact that I’d like to get as much of whatever idea or sentence I’m writing out there as soon as possible, or maybe not.

Teams, Slack, and email, as I’ve pointed out, facilitate more threading, but nudge the user towards longer threads and longer amounts of information instead. It’s increasing the divide between chatting and perceived productivity apps, and it’s interesting to see how people are using each app for something that may not entirely be its purpose.

The thing with chat apps is that there’s so much chatter happening at any time. I suppose this also relates to Slack, but it’s easy to get sucked into spending a little too much time sending emoji combinations rather than doing actual work. There’s constantly pinging and activity, and if I hadn’t really turned down my notification settings, I’d have been bombarded with spam pings and @channel / @everyone’s. Chat apps feel a lot less formal, which is sometimes a good thing, but then I think we also don’t think as much regarding content and length before we send things. I know I proofread and rethink emails a lot before I send them, but I don’t think I’d go through and correct for grammar errors (well, perhaps, if they were egregious) with much more than an asterisk correction.

Email, and Teams, I find, tend to be more of those ‘check once or twice a day’ things. Because more concentrated information settles there, and less of it, I can process it in two or three chunks that don’t take up too much time. The rest of the time, I can go focus on other things. Because of how hefty, if I can use that word, email feels, I don’t take or use it lightly, I suppose.

If only

I wish there was a reaction button on emails, perhaps, or not replying was a common, accepted thing to do. Circling back to the original issue with me emailing someone with a single line thank-you, this interaction would have occurred very differently on Discord, for example.

kewbish: @xyz, what about xyz?
xyz: oh right, [explanation].

Then, I can just :+1: react to the message, and the sender knows I’ve acknowledged and read it, and found it useful. I can’t do this with email, and it feels very odd to not reply. Alternatively, it’d be nice to figure out a way to inform everyone that I communicate with semi-regularly that I’ll be reading messages, but will try not to reply. Though I still think not replying isn’t as culturally accepted, so perhaps that has to be part of a larger shift away.

And as a slightly unrelated hope, I wish people would be a bit more cognizant to how email replies work. I’ve gotten reply-all-ed too many times, and when people inevitably just ask ‘it’s just a reply all that doesn’t even affect you anyway’, I’d like to point out that I have email notifications set only so that I receive a notification on new mail, so that I can act on it. I’d rather keep email as a more structured, less Slack-esque form of communication, where I know everything I receive is relevant in some way, and that I consider as important. Keeping email less spammy and keeping the amount of mail I have to triage lower would be nice.

Conclusion

We’ve grown to adapt our communication to each form of content that each platform dictates or encourages, and the style that each app works with is highly dependent, I find, on the threading system and how it works. Replies and conversations happen a certain way in real life, face to face, and I feel like each app we use is further evolving how we work.

To be honest, I perfectly like each platform’s style as it is. This wasn’t intended to be a rant, though perhaps it turned out a bit like it. The only overarching wish I have is for some sort of unification, though the issue with unification is we lose the uniqueness and individual standout features of each app. Julian Lehr wrote a great piece on email and its role in productivity, touching on the sprawl and integration problems that we face today, expanding on the idea of email and the purpose it serves in our lives.

It’s interesting how I slightly alter my speech and communication on each platform, and how odd it seems when someone doesn’t quite speak or communicate the ‘normal’ way on each platform. I’d never have realized that platforms and what features they implement, could have such a large impact on the way we work, communicate, and discuss.


  1. If I ever get time, I might build a small email tracker pixel generator for personal use. It might be a fun side project, and actually let me know when people open my emails without the disgusting large ‘sender has been notified that you have opened this email’ that the free Gmail addons seem to plaster all over the footer. ↩︎

  2. For clarity’s sake, I’d like to point out that Teams in this case is whatever version of Teams that’s used for school and has all the grading knickknacks. Not entirely sure about corporate Teams, and what that’s like. ↩︎

Cite me

MLA: Ma, Emilie. "Changing communication." Yours, Kewbish. n.p., 01 Nov. 2020. Web.

APA: Ma, E. (2020, November 01). Changing communication [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://kewbi.sh/blog/posts/201101/

UBC citation style.

- Yours, Kewbish


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