Asynchronous Communication

Saturday, July 3, 2010

What do text messaging, email, and voicemail have in common? They're all asynchronous forms of communication.

By asynchronous I mean that the stream of communication is intermittent and not constant. There may be minutes or hours in between messages in the conversation. When you email or leave someone a voicemail, you realize that the person you are contacting will likely take a while to get back to you. The very minimum most people expect someone to get back with one of these methods is around 5 minutes, and people typically estimate it will take around a day.

Contrast this with a synchronous method of communication such as the phone or instant messaging, where the stream of communication is expected to stay quick, with messages being passed back and forth within seconds. With phone calls or speaking with someone in person, there is usually the expectation that the other person will reply as soon as the speaker is finished their sentence.

I often harp on text messaging because text input on mobile devices is slow and because carriers really overcharge for texts. A bare-minimum voice connection on Verizon's EV-DO network uses 38.4 kbits/sec. In one second of voice communication, 38,400 bits (4,915 bytes) are transmitted over the air. Each SMS text message is 1120 bits (140 bytes), regardless of the character encoding. After doing the math, we can see that 1 second of voice communication is the data equivalent of 35 full-length text messages. If you don't have a text message plan, Verizon charges $0.25 per sent text message. For 35 text messages, that's $8.75. Imagine if your voice plan cost $8.75 per second, or $525 per minute!

But despite its slow conversation pace and high cost, text messaging remains a very popular method of communication in teens and young adults. After speaking with numerous people, I found that most do not disagree with my two biggest gripes. And yet they still text. Perhaps one reason why is because it is asynchronous. People can carry on multiple asynchronous conversations at the same time, or multiple asynchronous conversations and a synchronous one. People will text at the meal table or when hanging out with friends because they can maintain the synchronous conversation with the people they are physically with, and still chat with someone who isn't there.

Both asynchronous and synchronous communication methods have their benefits. Synchronous communication allows for a conversation to happen quickly with a lot of back and forth, so it's great for people to coordinate real-time events such as meeting places or to explain something clearly.

Asynchronous communication allows for fewer interruptions. A synchronous conversation generally derails the thought process of the recipient and tears them away from whatever they were doing. Your boss comes by, "Got a minute?" or your wife calls to check in. Either way, whatever you were working on gets put on hold and you shift focus to the conversation initiator. This also results in switching to a different context, which can impede your workflow. An asynchronous conversation on the other hand occurs on your time. You decide when to check your email and when to respond to your voicemail.

The next time you need something from your husband/wife, consider sending them an email instead of interrupting their work, assuming the need isn't urgent. Also consider that these are not cut and dry categories. If you keep your email open or have your email client pop up with a notification when you receive a new email, your email becomes more synchronous. Maybe you need it to be that way, or maybe you don't. If you don't, you could reduce interruptions by turning notifications off or closing your email, allowing you to focus on your current task.

What do you think? Is there a difference in these communication methods? Do you like to text? Why?

Posted by Craig Younkins at 9:55 PM  


hi craig, good thoughts on that. but i think poeple love texting because they can transmit more content in less time. and even input methods on mobile devices are getting better and better with those new slider and full qwerty keyboard phones. so why talk 30 seconds if one can type it in 10. i love texting because i got a seperate data/text and voice plan. and by the way, i really hate if someone calls me in the middle of a customer meeting ;-)

bergziege said...
September 26, 2010 at 2:11 PM  

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