Human Protocol Handshaking

Quinn Norton
Jun 30, 2015 · 4 min read

Figuring Out How We Want To Talk To Each Other Got Hard

Once I saw my friend Cory come on instant messaging for the first time in years. I messaged him at once to make sure he knew he connected, and he reacted with the surprise of someone who just accidentally pulled the pin from a grenade and was trying to fish it back in, and signed off. He was one of my friends who had jettisoned IM, and with it, most methods of real-time talking to people on the net.

Few things in culture, even in this time of crazy change, are actually new. Mostly we tweak, amplify, or vaguely suppress what we’ve always done. So when I see a new thing, I sit up and take notice. Here’s the new I’ve noticed: When we meet someone, we negotiate all the same rules of class and status and common interest that we always did, but now we also have to carefully negotiate our overlapping channels of communication, as well as their priority. Are you on Twitter? Do you prefer emails to instant message? If we connect on Facebook, will you notice my messages? Are you on Google Hangouts? Is it better to text you to make plans, or Twitter DM? Are you on Whatsapp? Can we solve this problem with a simple short phone call?

In talking to a lot of people I realized the first thing we are usually trying to establish is a person’s preference for synchronous vs asynchronous communication. I’m a synchronous person: I prefer IM to a such a degree that I am basically available on it nearly all the time I’m reachable. Asynch methods, like email, are hit or miss: either I reply immediately or some months/years later. (Take note, people trying to reach me. It’s nothing personal. :)

Most of my phone-hating friends in general hate synchronous communication and privilege messages coming through via methods they can manage according to their schedule, rather than the schedule of the person initiating contact. I still sometimes really like phone calls, and video chats even more, even if I worry about my hair. (I am only human.) I recently did an interview over, and despite the fact that it was for audio only, we both remained in video the whole time. It was pleasant and useful to react to a face. But for some people I know, that counts as hell on earth.

There is a subtle thing we do with communication negotiation as well, where we rank the level of importance of the person we are initiating a communicative relationship with by an opaque system of personal priorities. If someone isn’t someone I want to have me on a digital leash, the contact info I give them is very different from someone who I plan to daydream about. Sometime this opacity creates problems — once a person I was seeing, not realizing the Twitter DM worked better for me than texting, thought I was ignoring him until he DMed me and I responded at once. By then they were pissed at me, which annoyed me as well — I’d said DM was better, I just hadn’t been believed.

Similarity in communication technology styles is slowly becoming a hallmark of compatibility. I took at as a good sign that my current partner and I were both on Jabber clients which supported encryption. In fact, we barely have any forms of asynchronous communication, which has resulted in some hilarious logistical problems. Hilarious now, anyway.

“Oh, we both use the same chat protocol!” is a geekier and more useful version of liking the same band or having the same favorite movie. It’s dreamy, but useful.

Part of what we hate about people who use different communication methods than we do is that when we don’t have the chance to compromise and use a method both parties want, it feels like someone exercising power over us, like a powerful man giving you a stupid nickname. Protocol negotiation is another place where we do social power negotiation now. Often powerful people don’t even know they are doing this to people in subordinate positions, but then, sometimes they do, of course.

It’s early days of internet socialization, and we have so many more ways to talk than we ever did. Back when phones came out they were one of those New new things. Like Jessamyn, the last things I like doing with my phone is phone calls. But I appreciate the irony of my current phone avoidance after a 1980s-worth of teenage girl telephony chatter, and painfully short/expensive calls to long distance loves. Sometimes a long phone call with a loved one or even an intense and good phone interview where I really connect with a source reminds me what made phones great in their day, like that one long and gorgeous email you write once a year that reminds you of when you used to look forward to opening your email client and reading long thoughts from distant parts of the net.

Growing into our tech is one of those things that isn’t new — we’ve always done that, and we’ve always molded them around what it means to be the kind of human we wanted to be.

Except for answering machines and and their demonspawn, voicemail. Voicemail always sucked and always will. Don’t ever try to leave me voicemail, unless you hate me.

I read all my replies here. Your other best bet is messaging me on Twitter, @quinnnorton. ;)

The Message

A Pandaemonium Revolver Collection.

The Message

A Pandaemonium Revolver Collection. Season 2 stars @anildash @alanalevinson @ftrain @hipstercrite @itsthebrandi @jamielaurenkeiles @vijithassar @yungrama @zeynep. Season 1 available on DVD shortly.

Quinn Norton

Written by

A journalist, essayist, and sometimes photographer of Technology, Science, Hackers, Internets, and Civil Unrest.

The Message

A Pandaemonium Revolver Collection. Season 2 stars @anildash @alanalevinson @ftrain @hipstercrite @itsthebrandi @jamielaurenkeiles @vijithassar @yungrama @zeynep. Season 1 available on DVD shortly.