Why you should reduce instant messaging and embrace Email

As cellphones and the Internet have become integral parts of our daily lives and the society, there has been a slow but definite realization among more and more people that it comes with a substantial cost. An average cellphone user spends around four hours of their daily time only looking at the cellphone, and for some, the duration is much higher than that. As is well known now, this ``Screen culture'' leads to all types of acutely harmful problems that include, to name a few, sleep deprivation, reduced attention span, inability to think clearly about a given problem, reduced physical communication with friends and family, and stress and unhappiness caused by the excess use of social media. In this article, instead of focusing over all these issues, I only want to analyze a specific issue: intellectual shallowness caused by constant use of instant messages, and a possible solution.

While thinking about harmful effects of excessive use of digital communication tools and how to cope with it, I have gradually realized that the instant messaging apps should take the largest share of blame, followed by the social media. This is one of the reasons that I have often told some of my friends that I highly prefer a (scheduled) telephone/video call over chatting over IM apps when it comes to serious discussion. Considering the whole evolutionary history of our species, the digital communication is an extremely recent addition to the set of means we use for interacting with each other, and lacks several key components of face-to-face conversation. For example, while talking to other humans, apart from the actual spoken words, we also use things like changes in the intensity of voice, facial expressions, or even the whole body language to convery as well as to understand incoming information. But I do understand that telephone or video calls do not suit for all purposes, and also that the old communication tools like sending a physical letter also share these problems to some extent. However, as I will explain now, there are bigger problems specific with instant messaging. Before discussing an alternative, let us thus try to first understand these problems.

First of all, instant messaging produces lots of intermittent distractions; every time the phone beeps, our brain starts thinking about it even when we are in the middle of some deep thought or in a flow of doing something. This obstruction, I hope you would agree with me, is harmful in the long run directly reducing the quality of the work that we are producing. This single argument is enough for me to stop using IM apps for discussions. In my opinion, they should only be used either for urgent things where calling is not possible or when it may be disturbing (if, for example, the intended recipient is in the middle of a meeting or a lecture, and still some information needs to reach them as soon as possible).

However, there is a second, more subtle argument that complements the first: I have come to a conclusion that because of the rise of the instant messaging, our brains are losing the ability to properly form and shape the thoughts before they are sent out to the others. This, I suspect, is making many important conversations, let those be related to science or politics, shallow and harmful in spite of their central importance to the proper functioning of the human society. If one makes a typo or a grammatical mistake in an instant message, nobody minds it. But worse, even an impulsive argument that has been formed without much thought finds it's way to other people through these instant messages. This is so because instant messages are "cheap": you can send one more immediately if the previous contains a mistake or a typo.

Here I want to claim that there already exists a great middle-ground between instant messaging and telphone/video calls: a judicious use of an Email. If used in the right way, an Email provides several advantages over an instant messaging as I describe below.

Because we can relatively easily decide to check our emails much less frequently, say only once or twice per day, it can hugely improve the situation of constant distraction caused by the instant messaging culture. The critical thing to pay attention to here is that switching to the use of email works only if this switch comes with substantially reduced frequency of looking at your inbox, otherwise it would only change the form of distraction. If so, one might then argue that given this extra commitment, there is essentially no difference between the Email and instant messaging. I wish to convince you that that is not the case, and that Email is fundamentally different from instant messaging in a few critical ways.

First, if we take out time to write our thoughts/arguments in an e-mail or an article, like how I am doing at this very moment, it forces us to frame our arguments properly because the resulting writing needs to make sense. Thus, if there are any inaccuracies, we can think about those before we announce our opinion to the world. This automatically prevents impulsively formed thoughts from propagating to others. In the book ``Writing Science'', the author has argued that careful writing leads to clear thinking because one has to spend efforts to clarify one's own thoughts before they can be put in the written form. I now think that the culture of letter writing in old times must have been even better just because it was hard to both prepare and to send a physical letter which in turn would have helped impulsive feelings to die down. I am writing this article since several days, and while working on it intermittently, I also changed parts of it when I read it after a break. Moreover, I am feeling that I am choosing my words much more carefully than I do while sending out instant messages. On the other hand, as it's name suggests, instant messaging is supposed to be a medium that facilitates communication in real-time or at least in near real-time forcing most IM messages to be relatively short. This means that thinking for long time to properly formulate an elaborate argument, modifying it after it is written for better clarity, etc is neither expected nor possible since the other person might be looking at the screen in real-time waiting for your message. Also, often IM apps are native to cellphone and hence text written in them is not well suited for easy modification (the culture dictates that you send one more message immediately if you want to clarify the previous message!). On the other hand, at least traditionally Email is not supposed to work as a real-time medium of communication, and moreover, it is also native to big computer screens with large keyboards where writing and modifying big text is way easier than on cellphone screens with small keypads. This implies that Email is ideal medium for forming, writing, and scrutinizing a well-thought, elaborate piece of text!

Second, e-mail conversations tend to have a way longer life compared to instant messages. I have in my inbox emails that are around fifteen years old, and I am sure you too have such emails. How many three year old important messages that you sent or received through instant messaging apps are still available to you if needed? However, this fantastic preservation ability of Email would be useless if it were not possible to search through these old messages using a few keywords. That's where Email totally beats IM apps in this particular respect: I don't just have my decade old email messages safely saved, but I can also quickly search for relevant messages quickly when I need those!

Appreciating these advantages of Email does not however automatically translate into being able to use it to its full potential without cultivating some right habits. For example, I argued above that one important habit change that needs to happen is the substantial reduction in the frequency of checking emails without which the devil of distraction created by instant messaging cannot be defeated. Apart from this, I also advocate slowing down the response time. I remember that around 2007-08 when I started using Email, nobody was expecting a same day reply, let alone a response within a few minutes (at least in my social circle). However, as the Internet started becoming more and more common, people also started to respond more and more quickly at the expense of generating not-so-well-thought responses. Finally when it became common to be able to respond to emails via smartphones, many people started sending practically instantaneous responses just because they could. Because of the herd mentality, others also started following the footsteps. This obsession of quickly responding to a new message in the inbox thus eventually crushed the etiquette of writing a well-thought, unambiguous response. Here I must clarify that I am at all not saying that there is always something wrong with quickly responding to an email. It is likely that there are circumstances where the sender knows the exact response that needs to be sent instantly and the response also needs to be genuinely fast. My complain is more about the rise of the culture in which a recepient is obsessed over quickly responding to each and every message in the inbox, and where a sender is expecting an instant response even if the response is ambiguous and of inferior quality. Thus, when I advocate the use of Email for serious and quality conversations, I have to necessarily advocate the readers to end this culture of low-response time. This then is the second habit that needs to be cultivated for making use of the full power of the Email. In this new culture of judicious Emailing, depending upon the type of conversation that is happening via the email, the response time could be anywhere from a single day to a couple of weeks. I actually strongly advise against responding to any email on the same day. I know that this may sound odd or even a complete nonsense at first sight, but remember that your feeling is likely a result of the unfortunate cultural norms that were formed haphazardly during last couple of decades rather than because of some deep important reason.

The second habit that I wish to advocate now is related with the structure of the emails. Because we are mainly concerned here with the use of Email for conversations, there will be messages going two-ways back and forth. Traditionally such collection of messages is called a Thread, and I will keep using this term. What I suggest here is to dedicate each thread for a one and only one topic. This way, all the messages in the same thread will be about that one topic, and if in future you need to dig up something, you will just need to search for this one thread! Even if you are conversing with the same person about two different topics, you must then create two separate threads and keep them isolated. I have tried this strategy while discussing several different topics with one of my friends and it keeps all the ideas preserved in an extremely organized fashion that are easily searchable. These threads don't even need to close, and you can keep conversing on a given thread for years. Compare this with instant messaging where it is impossible to organize messages in this fashion.

Of course the advice here is easier said than done, but I strongly suggests to at least give this a try. It will provide you a peace of mind, at least temporarily, and hopefully it will do much more.

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