cc licensed flickr photo shared by Luca Zappa

This is more of a narrowly constructed and certainly not data-driven observation, and I admit at the front that I am just as much a part of the problem as the next node, but I am seeing in my own streams of communications more dropped connections all the time.

Sure, in the days of cards and letters, the receipt of a warm letter lead to the reflex of a reply, and carrying the letter writing modes of conduct into the first years, decade of electronic mail, there was a similar pattern. I wrote, you replied, I replied, you replied, and it ended at some mutually understood point when there was nothing more to say.

I wonder what was the recognition part that this had been reached? Does it just happen more quickly now?

Of course now we have all these different streams of communication beyond just email (and just beyond one e-mail account) with status messaging in twitter/facebook/ et al, commenting on blogs/flickr/youtube, et al, instant messaging everywhere. Not only more streams, but more volume, so its not surprising things go un-replied.

I lose track of them once the list rolls down past the fold of my Gmail inbox, despite my lukewarm efforts to move things out, move to an “actionable” folder (where they are allowed to gather dust free of GTD guilt).

cc licensed flickr photo shared by batega

In the last few months, twice I’ve either gotten or made a connection with friends from more than 25 years ago, from an age before there was an e-anything (neither involved Facebook, I am not sure why I am writing that as a disclaimer). Both times the pattern was the same, one round of “this is my life now” and my reply…. and nothing. I am starting to wonder if in e-mail there is an equivalent of bad breath.

I’ve also had more than enough professional communications that required the extra “did you get my message” to elicit a response. And I know I have also been on the guilty end myself of dropping the ball.

Perhaps we just shrug and say, “That’s how it is.” I’ve heard Biz Stone rather articulately describe twitter as removing the obligation of the reply pattern we know from e-mail.

Call me old fashioned, but replies to a large degree are essential, and make a difference, made more painfully so when you are on the receiving end of a Reply:None rather than the delivery of one. Is the lack of a reply itself a message or just an “Ooops”?

Maybe that’s just the way it is.

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Profile Picture for Alan Levine aka CogDog
An early 90s builder of the web and blogging Alan Levine barks at on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person.


  1. The point of this posting is on point as far as I am concerned.

    I have found for quite some time that electronic communication with my peers and associates often generates next to nothing in the way of “conversation” or even simple responses let alone answers.

    I do my best to reply to queries, but despite knowing that some of my twitter followers likely have answers to my questions, an unhappy number of those questions go unanswered. Similar behaviour occurs in newsgroups and mailing lists. There seems to be more of an imperative for people to respond when a question is asked face to face… even when the answer is not immediately known, the other person will take some time to find out and get back to me.

    Thanks for raising the issue. Bob

    1. I know the sheer volume of communication which is taking place now on multiple platforms is part of the problem, at least for me. I grapple with this challenge daily and do not have answers.

      I think the phone is still a great technology when you need to get an answer from someone quick, and my text messaging life is (at least for now) always filled with lots of replies… I never fail to reply to a text message query, or phone call… but the fact that I’m able to do this is a direct result of the limited distribution that number has (for text messaging.)

      That quote about Twitter removing reply guilt was interesting.

      When it comes to email, I think what I need to be disciplined enough to do (and fail at regularly to date) is committing a specific amount of time (in GTD style) to emptying email and sorting it. I really think we need to be intentional about sharing and practicing these skills with students as well as teachers and others. Dealing with TMI (too much information) isn’t part of the formal curriculum, but it’s a reality that is just getting worse. I think this “no reply” phenomenon is closely tied to TMI trends.

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