It crossed my mind as I check my inbox everyday that I get most of my emails while I am sleeping and barely any while I am awake. Well, turns out it’s because I find that 95% of my communication with US friends is via email while 95% of my communication with Chinese friends is via IM.
I think that’s an interesting phenomenon, because I do feel like IM will only become more and more the main mode of communication – just look at the teenagers in the US these days who say email is too slow and a thing of the past. It’s the exact same sentiment that I get here, except it’s not from a select group, but more or less everyone.
My hypothesis on why that is:
1) Email has been rooted in the US culture for quite some time, way before the existence of IM. Whereas here, IM was introduced soon after email
2) Less separation of personal and professional lines along communication methods. For example, in the US I would never consider IM’ing or SMS a client because it seems too casual and unprofessional, whereas here, I do it all the time. Thus, on my MSN contact list here in China, it’s a good mix of professional and personal contacts. Companies even take this too the extreme and offer business services over IM such as ddmap – they offer 411/mapquest services.
3) Along with the last point, IM isn’t as fragmented here. People here use MSN, QQ or both. There is a general perception that the QQ’s demographic is teenagers and college kids while MSN’s is grown-ups. I would say it’s true for the most part, though I do see QQ contact info on customer contact pages from time to time. In the US, I’ve used IM in a corporate environment (Sametime) but it was strictly for professional use, like I couldn’t add my non-company buddies if I wanted to. Here, my MSN contact list has the whole kitten kaboodle, thus making it more useful.
4) MSN signatures – this is something that I love about MSN. I know you can sorta do the same thing on Yahoo or AOL, but it’s not really the same, and I never see anyone using it back home. It’s basically adding a signature next to your username (or replacing it altogether) so that you can customize how your buddies see you. What makes this cool? People end up putting up new 1-liners all the time about their moods or recent happenings. So for example, I put up “looking for recs for programmers” recently and people who had me on their contact list would out of the blue IM me and say “oh, what’s going on? what kind of people are you looking for? did you start your own company?” You could say it’s a question of push vs pull. ie I could’ve done the same thing by blasting out emails to all my buddies, but by simply adding a signature on my MSN, people who were curious or had recs could IM me.
On this last point, I think it’s worth dwelling into further in the respect that I think people are lazy and like to know what’s going on but don’t want to work at it. So by having a signature, I can get little mini-updates from the person without having to actively communicate with the person. It’s a lot more non-committal and this way I don’t even feel obligated to communicate back if I don’t want to.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think email is going away, but I think it’ll be more and more relegated to things where it’s about documentation or conveying something complex.
PS. somewhat related, despite the trend of moving to instant gratification in communication, push email systems (a la blackberry) haven’t really taken off here. For the most part, people feel like SMS is a sufficient substitute.