Why medium collapse is bad for communication
Google and Facebook have been working on some interesting projects lately that try to group and otherwise organize people’s communication based on the way each company feels people conceptualize their communication. Though email threads weren’t new, even back in 2004 when Gmail came out, “conversations” that included sent messages were a unique  addition. So, message organization 1: conversations.
Then Google came out with Wave, which obviously didn’t last long and wasn’t the revolution Google was hoping for. I believe this was because email and instant messaging have traditionally come with different expectations about normative behavior, and the choice of one or the other can be a strong signaling mechanism. Formality, expected length of response, how long is acceptable before responding, and even implied tie strength all play a role in media choice . Google Wave collapsed these two media into one, eliminating the communicative power embedded in media choice alone, confusing users in the process. This is message organization 2: conversations on steroids. Everything is still threaded more or less by conversation, but it becomes less dependent on media choice.
Recently, Facebook began rolling out its new messaging system. This system does two interesting things. First, rather than thread by conversation, it threads by recipient, much the way the SMS app on the iPhone does. Second, while not as unique from a design standpoint, it goes farther than Wave did in its attempt to almost completely abstract the message away from the medium. Their whole pitch was basically that it would let you send a message to a person, without having to think about what medium you were using. In theory, this sounds great, but they forgot that, like I said, different media do actually have different affordances, and media choice can be an almost active participant in a conversation. To write a long-form email, a quick hello, or a social coordination message (SMS-style) all in the same interface just doesn’t make sense to me, especially when the sender can’t know what kind of device the recipient will be using.
In a small concession to this awkwardness that I think speaks volumes about the way people really use different communication channels, Facebook did add two checkboxes in the messaging interface:
One lets the sender decide whether or not to send the message to the recipient’s mobile phone, and the other essentially changes it from IM/SMS mode (press return/enter to send) to long-form mode (press return/enter to insert a line break). These completely change the nature of the medium, and I’m not convinced they should ever have been combined in the first place.
Assuming a conversation/people dichotomy for message organization, how does usage context play a role? Is the conversation model more appropriate in a task-oriented environment, which email often is, and is the person-no-matter-the-medium model more appropriate to social contexts? Maybe. But I’m going to stop here.
And of course, I need to bump George Lakoff’s book Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal about the Mind to the top of my reading list now.