Messages are Contextual

Today, The New York Times ran an article about Facebook’s new messaging service and the decline of email website visitors. They didn’t refrain from using superlatives, “old fogeys,” and ‘immediate gratifications’ to make their point about ‘young people’ eschewing their lives of email and instead using more immediate services.

There are a few notable quotes from Facebook engineers that reinforce their decision to roll out the new messaging service. My favorite is the following bit about internal analytics on messages:1

The company decided to eliminate the subject line on messages after its research showed that it was most commonly left blank or used for an uninformative “hi” or “yo.”

But bullshit like this — from James E. Katz, the director for the Center for Mobile Communications Studies at Rutgers University — sounds demented:

“It’s painful for them,” he said of the younger generation and e-mail. “It doesn’t suit their social intensity.”

Social intensity? Christ.

The article proceeds to quote traditionalists, complaining about the loss of the “art of language” and “losing our skills to communicate the written word.”

The entire article is trying to ask: Is this really a fundamental change in the way people communicate, or merely a product of our times? Or only a young people thing?

It’s probably a cultural change prompted by technological advances. Sure. Young people are trendsetters. They’re early adopters. They abbreviate to send a text message faster on incompetent mobile devices. But they’re also just consumers.

We should be asking more important questions about this cultural shift — not just whether or not the art of language is threatened. It’s quite apparent that the English language is changing, as it has evolved over the course of human history. And much of its professional principles have remained intact — so what’s with the fuss?

Maybe this change is just a mobile thing. Or a minimalist thing. Or a time constraint thing. For most messages, especially internal correspondence in agencies, bloated emails are counterproductive. Oftentimes stripping a message of long subject lines, salutations, summary paragraphs, and onerous signatures can improve accessibility and reduce time spent reading.

This is more instantaneous. This is more succinct. This is more efficient.

Aren’t these the same reasons ‘young people’ prefer text messaging to email? Why pick on them when they’re actually using technological improvements to their advantage? Shouldn’t corporate America do the same?

The ‘art of language’ debate is relevant but should be confined to where it’s needed most - in client/consumer-facing documentation, news, press releases, essays, books, etc. People to people correspondence can be written well, but it shouldn’t have to be. Who cares if it has a subject line? The little things that seem archaic with postal service mail (hand-writing a recipient’s address, hand-writing a return address, tongue-licking and hand-pressing a stamp, tongue-licking and hand-pressing an envelope) are part of the process for that technology.

Inside the envelope? Some would have you believe you must format the letter with a date, repeat the address again, provide a salutations, etc. But you don’t have to. There are no rules for personal correspondence.

The same should be said about email/instant messaging/text messaging/Facebook-Twitter-&c. messaging. Addresses are pre-populated automatically based on your contacts list, and that’s it. Technology makes it speedy to get a message across. If it’s a professional message, stick a salutations in there. If it isn’t, ignore it.

It’s okay that ‘young people’ are neglecting to include these items; I guess it’s alright if they put ‘yo’ as the subject line for a message. But what isn’t good is if they don’t have the education know the difference between a terse email to their friends and a cover letter for a job.

Facebook can do whatever they want to propel technology forward — that includes innovating in whatever way they see fit for making correspondence between its users easier. Whether it’s based on internal analytics, cultural changes, or user behavior: that’s up to Facebook. But Facebook is about personal connections and correspondence. It isn’t an authority on how professionals communicate with one another. Messages are contextual. Leave it at that.

  1. And you thought privacy was an issue for leaking data to advertisers? Consider Facebook monitoring your messages to improve their service.