Available to chat

From my instant messaging logs, two weeks ago:

Brian Chen
12:22
goodbye for two weeks

katherine
12:23
dont leave me here all alone

Brian Chen
12:23
i'll miss you, tigerlily1684

katherine
12:23
its such a cold cyber world
i'll remember you always
parting is such sweet sweet sorrow

Brian Chen has disconnected at 12:24 p.m.

A few days into my two-week experiment of staying off online chat, I walked over to my colleague Greg Adler’s cubicle with my morning cup of tea to say hello.

“I was waiting for your screen name to pop up on my buddy list!” he said. “Do you have any idea how this affects our relationship? Or how this affects me? Why is it always about you, Brian? What about me?”

Greg was clearly joking, but he was right. I knew he was tired of dialing my extension just to ask if I could go on a smoke break. Incidentally, my cubicle neighbor Heather Kelly pointed out that I’d started “thinking out loud” regularly, which must have been distracting. My friends Jenn and Matt, who hadn’t spoken to each other in over a year, began IMing each other to fill in the “social void” my absence had created for them. My boss Jim Galbraith couldn't tell when I left for my lunch break, because my screen name would carry such information with an Away message. I ceased electronic-text communication to conduct an experiment on myself, but ultimately signing off affected others more than it affected me.

“Why are you putting yourself through this?” my roommate Peter asked.

“I’m tired of words,” I said. “I want to hear people’s voices, see them in the flesh. I want to analyze their body language and look them in the eyes—like old times. I want to reconnect.”

“You're a damn fool.”

Perhaps I was foolish for thinking I could revert. Though in the past two weeks I’ve been rather productive—learning new dinner recipes, riding my scooter around town, and debasing myself in Vegas—cutting myself off from electronic-text communication has made life unnecessarily difficult. The inability to chat online was plain and simply inconvenient. For example, my friend Amy and I took a trip to Las Vegas for Christmas vacation, and planning the trip over the phone was exponentially more difficult than it would have been had we used e-mail instead. And even though prior to beginning my experiment I sent an e-mail out to all my friends and coworkers forewarning them about my two-week hiatus, they continued to e-mail or text message me, and I’d have to call them just to respond to simple questions or comments.

As much as I desire to reconnect myself with the human element, I’ve come to conclude there’s no going back. E-mails kept appearing in my in-box and text messages continued popping up on my phone. Refusing to participate in online chatting is essentially irresponsible. Instant messaging, e-mailing, and text-messaging have made life too convenient for everyone; why inconvenience others by staying off? It’s essentially resisting adaptation.

But like I said in my earlier blog entry, there’s still a problem with relying too much on online communication. Placing too much faith in the written word is a mistake: With English, especially, words are often loaded, sometimes ambiguous. One’s usage of ellipses can be construed as irritation, boredom, or impatience; the tone of a written message is open to limitless interpretations. I believe the key is to find balance between the old methods and the new. When it comes to simple matters—making lunch plans, sharing funny stories, etc.—we might as well get our messages across expediently online. But when it comes to more serious conversations—confrontations, conflict resolution, and so forth—I can’t imagine that anything could be more effective than a meeting in the flesh.

I did gain something from this experiment. I feel that in the past two weeks I’ve gotten better at talking to people. When you spend too much time online, like myself, your online chatting habits begin to overlap with your real-life conversational skills. When speaking to someone, I’d often find myself going silent and wandering off into other thoughts, only to return to the conversation later—similar to the way I’d respond to IMs in between reading Web sites, checking my e-mail, and switching songs on my iTunes. Since I went cold turkey, I noticed I was making an effort to give people my undivided attention while staying in tempo with our conversations.

As soon as this entry gets posted, I’ll be able to sign on in two hours. I can’t wait: There are many people I haven’t had a chance to call because it was simply too inconvenient (e.g. different time zones, personal obligations, wisdom-teeth removal). I’ve come to realize we all have two separate lives: a virtual and a real. We must live them separately, without letting one get tangled with the other.

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