The tale of the terrible digital reference interaction, part II

Cartoon of a woman in a pink dress typing frantically on a laptop

Image via Hyperbole and a Half

In part I, I told you about how my digital reference interview went sour. Tonight, I’m going to reflect and look at the role the medium of communication (instant messaging, or IM) might have played in all of this.

One of the great things about IM is that it lies between email and face-to-face conversations in terms of the speed of exchange of words. Like email, you can type out a message and edit it before you hit “send” (or, if you’re like me, you hit send too soon and don’t realize you spelled “sometimes” as “sometmies” and “the” as “hte” until it’s too late). And, like a face-to-face interaction, the other party or parties will receive your message instantaneously (well, as soon as you send your message).

IM is great for when you’re having a casual conversation with someone with whom you feel comfortable. But at times when you really want to say the right thing, project the right tone, and communicate without errors, IM might not be the best choice. At least now I know it isn’t the best choice for me. I am the type of person that takes an hour to write one email because I like to edit it to death. This habit didn’t disappear during my conversation with James. I wanted to come across as polite and professional. So when I tried to explain to him what a pickup artist was, I took a long time editing my explanation. Then I think he grew impatient, things started going downhill… you know the rest.

It should be noted that AskNow’s interface was lacking something that can usually help in this type of situation: a little indicator in the chat window that lets the other party know you are typing. Most IM software seem to include this these days. In Google Chat, if I’m typing something during our conversation, the phrase “Leigh is typing…” will appear in gray at the bottom of the chat window. If I’ve paused, it will say “Leigh has entered text.” These little indicators are incredibly useful, especially when your conversational partner is typing out a long message. In the olden days of instant messaging, you would just have to hope that the person to whom you were talking didn’t leave without telling you (back then, leaving without saying “brb” [be right back] or “brb, afk” [be right back, away from keyboard] or “pos” [parent over shoulder] was an IM faux pas). Even worse, you could be having a fight with someone and send out a bunch of angry messages, without knowing that they were trying to explain and apologize all along. These days, this little indicator does much more than tell you I’m typing. It tells you, “hold on! I have something to say!” or “I want to say something, but I want to make sure I sound coherent. Please be patient.”

I think this indicator would have helped James and I. From his point of view, he would have been able to see that I was attempting to explain my question to him, and that he could do something else while waiting for my answer. On my end, maybe I could see whether he was uncomfortable with my question or not. If you and I were IMing and the little indicator kept switching between “Leigh is typing…” and “Leigh has entered text” and then goes blank a few times, you might pick up on the hint that I am having trouble finding the right words to say. Perhaps James was typing, pausing, and erasing as much as I was, but I never would have known!

Another thing about digital reference and IM: IM is an intrusive medium of communication. Meaning, you are forcing that person to take time out of their day to talk to you on your time, at least for a little bit until they tell you they will have to get back to you. Email, on the other hand, lets the other party prepare and respond on their own time. Sometimes librarians don’t have that luxury. That’s something that I should have considered. It’s something every patron should consider.

Since I threw a difficult question at him and I am a slow IM-er in these situations, I’ll let James off the hook. And next time, I’ll use email.


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