I know we’re in the infancy of a new communication technology with short real-time burst communication formats like Twitter and SMS, but I really, really hope it doesn’t take us as long to establish basic rules of conduct and courtesy as it did with the telephone and e-mail.
The ubiquity of instantaneous, short-format communication is sometimes used to give sloppy etiquette and inconsiderately-timed interactions a free pass. But, we’ve had phones in every home, on all the time, for generations, and mobile voice communications for decades now. When presented with a clear framework of accepted norms, we’ve proven ourselves (most of us, anyway) capable of respecting personal boundaries and exercising common courtesy.
However, these norms revolve around channels that have always been understood to be real-time. Now, advances in device technology have brought communication formats that we’ve been given to think of as asynchronous to us in real-time. SMS notification of new Twitter direct messages is a great example of this — I don’t receive an SMS every time I get a new e-mail (that would be awful!), but Twitter DMs are infrequent enough — and typically time-sensitive enough — that I usually want to be notified of them right away.
Unless, of course, the person at the other end of the Twitterphone has different standards of conduct, or ideas about what the appropriate use of direct messages is.
With SMS, in particular, standards of conduct are evolving because adoption and use of SMS are still evolving (at least among Americans). Sometimes, when I go to text a family friend regarding logistics — whether we’re going out together for the night, traveling together, or what have you — and my wife will gently remind me that “not everyone texts, you know”. This has largely ebbed as, well, just about everyone texts these days. Still, I was pleasantly surprised when texts started arriving from my father (the Nexus One probably had something to do with it).
So, as we continue to evolve our standards of communication etiquette, I’d like to propose a few simple rules that, I hope, will help keep us all on civil terms. Ahem:
- Please, please, please reserve Twitter DMs for time-sensitive, personal communication. If you want me to know about your new book, your company’s product, your band’s gig, or your cat’s birthday, and @-reply will be just fine. Don’t worry — I’ll see it.
- If you’re going to DM me, it would be, you know, courteous of you to follow me back so I can reply. Do you know what you are when you can call me, directly, anytime, to tell me about your product, but I can’t call you? A telemarketer, that’s what. Give that a ponder.
- If you’re going to send a welcome message thanking me for following you, an @-reply is probably just fine, unless you’ve got a specific, private question to ask. If you don’t bother to follow me back, and your DM-spam arrives in the middle of the night (when I have my phone nearby, you know, for emergencies), you know what that makes you? That’s right — a telemarketer that wakes me up in the middle of the night. Probably not what you intended.
- If you use SMS extensively, particularly (as is increasingly the case) in place of voice mail (which, don’t get me wrong, I appreciate), it’s likely a good idea to make sure the person you’re texting has unlimited SMS (I do) or at least an unlimited plan. And a nice rule of thumb is not to text at an hour when you wouldn’t call — they have the same effect, as far as intrusiveness is concerned.
Bottom line — SMS and Twitter are not e-mail, folks. Please stop treating them as if they were anything less than what they are — real-time communication.