Musing about politeness and “continuous partial asymmetry”

I blame James Governor, Tim O’Reilly and Ross Mayfield for this post. James first got me thinking about the phenomenon of asymmetry in modern communications as a result of DMing me a few days ago with his Asymmetric Follow post, an absolute must-read. He then followed it up with another, looking at Dopplr rather than Twitter; in between, Tim O’Reilly then tweeted about it to Robert Scoble, connecting the phenomenon with Robert’s “DM hell”. And before I’d worked out where my head was at on all this, Ross Mayfield went and wrote this.

Enough name-dropping for you? Don’t worry, that’s not the intention. Some of you may wonder why anyone would bother with all this kerfuffle. Is this just a bunch of “social media experts” theorising about some obscure statistical phenomenon? Not really, there are some very important points being made here. Three in particular are worth emphasising:

  • People in a Web 2.0 network are not uniformly connected; some have more connections than others
  • Connections have directions; the number of inbound connections may far exceed the number of outbound connections, creating an asymmetric environment
  • This is particularly true of “default-public” networks such as Twitter; Flickr is also likely to evince similar behaviour.

I think there’s more to it. Many years ago, I was honoured to receive a visit from Yossi Vardi; I arranged to have a colleague of mine, Stu Berwick, join me for part of the session. When we were discussing IM, Stu made an observation which really struck a chord with me. He said:

In IM, it’s polite to be silent

I knew something was rattling at the back of my mind when I read James’s post; it took me a while before I figured out it was Stu’s comment. I think the particular “politeness convention” that’s in place has a lot to do with the potential for asymmetry. In order for twitter to become asymmetrical, it must be OK for me not to reply to a tweet. If I am forced to reply then it doesn’t work. If I am expected to reply then it still doesn’t work. But if it’s OK for me to say nothing, then it works.

What is this thing that works? Asymmetric follow. Why? Because I am no longer expected to reply to everything that comes in. People who receive a lot of snail mail or e-mail don’t reply to everything that comes in either, so what’s the difference? The difference is in the perception of polite behaviour.

It’s rude not to answer a telephone call; it’s rude not to call back when a voicemail has been left; it’s rude not to reply to an e-mail; in fact it’s rude not to provide sympathetic sounds when listening to someone on the other end of a phone. [That last politeness convention has had an unintended consequence ever since the mobile phone was invented, the regular need to intersperse conversation with “are you there?”].

It’s not rude to ignore a SMS. It’s not rude to ignore an IM. It’s not rude to ignore a tweet. Even an @tweet. Even a DM.

The politeness issue alone is not enough either. This whole thing is exacerbated, beautifully exacerbated, by the 140 character limit of Twitter. Because we can now have “continuous partial asymmetry”. Someone who has 4000 followers can choose to reply to the @s of 400 of the followers, because of two critical things. One, the cost of replying to the @ is low. And two, you can vary the particular 400 you’re replying to. Yes you’re constrained, ostensibly by personal bandwidth, from replying to everyone all the time. But because you manage to reply to some of the people some of the time, nobody feels left out, the weak ties remain in place and everything works.

As a result of this continuous partial asymmetry, there is one more valuable, yet unintended, consequence. A-listing is less of an issue. The conversations that take place extend well beyond narrow echo chambers, there’s always an infusion of fresh voices into the conversation, yet barriers to entry remain low.

Just thinking. There’s something quite important here, and I’m going to have to gnaw away at it.

26 thoughts on “Musing about politeness and “continuous partial asymmetry””

  1. Thanks for saying this, and for the links to the related posts. Seems I’ve been in a lot of conversations lately about the practice of asymmetric following.

    Some people seem to still think that it’s impolite for people not to follow back on Twitter, and that an asymmetrical following pattern is a sign of arrogance. Personally, I think it’s the exact opposite — expecting people to follow you just because you follow them is egocentric. You have no idea what their constraints are. Just because you have time to spend meeting every person who follows you on Twitter or sends you an invitation on Facebook or LinkedIn doesn’t mean that they do, and it’s nothing personal if they don’t reciprocate. They’re not arrogant, they’re just busy.

  2. I would say it’s the best way invented so far for people with a big “audience”/following to communicate in genuine and fruitful ways with their followers, and vice versa, for “ordinary” people to communicate with the people they admire who have large followings.

    These are the people we used to call celebrities and members of the public, or super-successful people and the ordinary working class… it’s hard to define them in this new environment (and the old definitions seem to be a bit sensitive in many cases)- but though the old realities about society still exist in many ways, new communication tools like Twitter can change their implications. Not everyone wants or needs to maintain communication with 4000 individuals, but with the old communication structures it was very difficult to have ongoing conversations/relationships with those outside your “circle” ie. with a different degree of social following. Now it’s much easier.

    I think this is going to liberate “celebrities” and well-known people at least as much as their followers, which is good if it improves the state of play between those two groups, which has gone a bit peculiar in this privacy-free era.

    Anything that helps people understand other people who they couldn’t previous converse with has to be good. Ultimately, I’d like to see groundbreaking dialogue result in to the end of terrorism. It has to end eventually, why not through Twitter? (I can dream!)

  3. I’m not sure the A-lister issue is “solved” so simply – it seems to me more of an attitudinal question.

    A-listers are nurtured by people applying Paretian tyranny to their reading habits and feeling that popularity is an indication of smarts rather than narcissism and/or being too lazy/closed to look further afield.

  4. I find that many IM users are perfectly happy if the other person in their conversation just stops writing for no reason and with no polite sign-off.

    In IM that’s apparently not impolite.

  5. ah jp I remember that meeting well…

    I think an interesting way to illustrate that point about silence in IM vs. verbal communication is to simply stop talking to the person you’re trying to explain it to at an appropriate juncture in your conversation. even if only for 10 seconds, the social discomfort of that silence is almost unbearable for both parties. the lack of that necessity to pad one’s communication with polite dialog is one of the things that makes IM so good I think (or to put it another way, it is technically synchronous but culturally asynchrounous — which is the best of both worlds in a communications medium to my mind).

    I think the discussion around the social dynamics of twitter is fascinating, and is really an acceleration of the cultural impact of blogging — namely the hybridisation of publishing and communication. Historically the expectations of publishers and their subscribers have been very different to those of communicating peers, but the new media are merging these spheres… after all 1-n and 1-1 communications are only special cases of n-n at the end of the day.

    In fact, maybe that’s a neat summary: the reason twitter is significant is because it’s the first medium that is inherently both a publishing network AND a communication network, and we’re currently figuring out the cultural norms of using a single medium to do both things simultaneously.

  6. A while back, as an experiment in asymmetry I set up a twitter account, 54321, to which I *never* post and from which I *never* follow anyone. Curiously this account has 13 followers. Of course it’s cheap to follow: *all* tweets are guaranteed to be of interest to you (an easy guarantee to honour, since there are no tweets).

  7. [I should say of course that communication padded with polite dialogue is the stuff of which great dinner parties are made… so what I’m really talking about is the *effectiveness* of IM as a comms medium (particularly in a work context)…]

  8. JP – My view of the relative rudeness of ignoring messages in these different media differs a lot from yours. This surprised me, and even after my double-take I was still surprised and had to comment

    > It’s rude not to answer a telephone call
    Disagree. This is perfectly acceptable. (It will become unacceptable again once everyone has smart inbound call control where the people you don’t want to answer automatically get sent to voicemail or a “this mailbox is full” before they get anywhere near your actual presence)

    > it’s rude not to call back when a voicemail has been left
    Disagree. A response by email/IM/SMS is usually perfectly fine. I agree it is a bit rude not to respond at all.

    > it’s rude not to reply to an e-mail
    WTF? You cannot be serious.

    > in fact it’s rude not to provide sympathetic sounds when listening to someone on the other end of a phone.
    Mmm hmm yeah I know what you mean

    > It’s not rude to ignore a SMS.
    Completely disagree. SMS is far more personal than email or voicemail. While I can get by perfectly fine if people don’t reply to voicemail or email, I get a bit shirty if they ignore my SMS’s. And many of my friends are the same.

    > It’s not rude to ignore an IM.
    Again, completely disagree.

    > It’s not rude to ignore a tweet. Even an @tweet. Even a DM.
    That’s true. And it’s because Twitter allows this “asymmetric intimacy”, whereas SMS and IM do not. And you’d better not ignore my SMS’s, buddy!

  9. What I mean by that last comment is this: It’s not what I consider polite or impolite that matters. What matters is how others perceive it.

    I agree I’m making a generalisation (with all its attendant risks), but the rule of thumb I’ve observed is as follows:

    In synchronous communications like the traditional telephone, you have to keep responding (otherwise you face the “are you still there?” question).

    Asynchronous communications that are *not* classified as instant appear to have the same expectation. People *do* expect their emails to be answered, however odd that may sound.

    IM and texts appear not to have this burden. If they don’t hear from you, people assume you were busy or unavailable.

    Twitter’s @ messages seem to be closer to the IM model of politeness expectation.

    You may not agree with the expectations. They are not theoretical value choices I am making, just recording my observations of people’s behaviour.

  10. JP – What’s your view of this asymmetry with respect to high-context vs. high-content cultures? Eg. how might IM asymmetry sit with a Japanese vs. an American? Better still, what if one was talking to the other …?

    Might age (without making this ageist, rather age related to use of technology) be a factor? Is there a politness delineation between those that use the technology a lot vs. those that don’t?

  11. JP:

    Good, thought provoking post per usual. This bit is particularly useful and I believe, where problems begin: “It’s not what I consider polite or impolite that matters. What matters is how others perceive it.”

    The perception will vary hugely by person, culture, demographics, and even the topic of discussion. One cannot generalise by person but can generalise by nearly all other factors I mention (and I am sure, some more).

    The question therefore is – do perceptions matter?

    On the web, where one may interact with people who do not know one personally, I think they probably matter more than in-person interactions which enable us to cut people some slack.

    They may also matter when a person is tweeting pseudonymously. I find it hard when people do not identify themselves but keep yapping. For me it boils down to trust and trustworthiness (about whose value as social currency I wrote today after conversations with Dina).

    The whole thing I think is very subjective. I do not care if Tim O’Reilly does not follow me but on many occasions, when I have asked him something, he graciously responds. The asymmetry is constantly evolving like a random walk. Identifying patterns would be like seeing the whole thing as fractals, when it is not. :-)

  12. The psychology of interaction is important. If you leave a message, and you KNOW that the person will have listened to it, it is a fundamentally different experience when compared to the uncertainty that it has been received and listened to. Then you might be anxious about what was said in the message you left (was it phrased correctly?, was it taken up with an unintended meaning? etc. etc.).

    As with the whole area of behavioral economics, I think that we could all learn from some other sociology and psych studies.

    A few months ago I was told it was “rude” not to follow people back, and I put it down to the potential for serendipity. I am not so sure of that now. Perhaps there will be many-shaped networks and many-dimensioned interactions. The beauty of twitter is that they are giving it time to evolve….

  13. great post and definitely one for our times.

    One question – is it polite or impolite to ignore a comment on a blog post – you do not seem to have covered that one??

  14. It’s do as you would be done by, there aren’t formal conventions to check out. When I comment I don’t expect a formal reply. When I do get a reply I feel good about it.

    So when I receive a comment I try and reply, but often in bunches. I cannot be relied upon to reply.

    I *can* be relied upon to read the comments. Which is the thing that matters, I think.

    We are all learning about the psychology of these things. There’s a lot of good work being done on it, so I know we will continue to learn.

  15. Politeness or impoliteness is equally to do with the content of the communication as it is with the transport. For instance, “What time can you make it for a green tea?” demands an answer regardless of the chosen transport. The point about the politeness or impoliteness of transport (intrinsically) may be secondary to the type of transport suitable for a particular content or conversation. BTW I’m with gkc – is that who I think it is? – I believe it is rude not to reply to any message that uses any one-to-one transport where the conversation that that message is part of has not already been terminated by a conversation-full-stop such as “thx”, “later” or “oh do shut up” :)

  16. Malcolm, I was with Yossi Vardi just a few minutes ago discussing elements of this very thing. For many years he has argued for an End-Of-Message-Chain marker in the subject header of an e-mail, something to say “no need to reply”.

    I agree that the subject is really what determines whether the reply is expected or not. But there is something else. And that is whether the communication is synchronous or not. If I am unable to reply to an *instant* message *instantly* then I usually let the message be. There are cases where I would reply because the subject was not an “instant” subject.

    “Just saw this” is a common and polite response to such things.

    Sadly, we have too many cases of “just received this”, which has more to do with transmission time than subject.

    Looks like there’s enough in the comments for another post. Will need to work on it.

  17. Malcolm’s post and your reply left me concerned that the debate is less about polite/impolite than it is about the dawning of conventions in the use of various message formats. Yossi Vardi’s request was, I think, answered ages ago by the the use of such terms as FYI and formerly by cc and bcc that conventionally don’t require action or response. Looks like its the etiquette that we’re formulating as much as the psychology.

  18. Actually, I think it is rude to ignore an @ Tweet. It just shouldn’t be unexpected for celebrities. I’d suggest that if you @ a friend, (same as were you to IM a friend), and receive nothing, you’d be a bit put off and might consider responding in kind. Of course, if you @ a celebrity or widely followed Twitterati, your expectations are likely less. (Or should be.)

    The fundamental difference for the purposes of this discussion, (it seems to me anyway), between Twitter and most other communications is that Twitter allows you to invite yourself into someone’s circle in an asymmetric way in the first place. So an @ Sender shouldn’t necessarily have expectations that an @ Receiver wants to engage.

    What’s proper Netiquette for Twitter is evolving, but will depend on the use case. And there seem to be several different types of use cases for Twitter. (Just as there are for Email, IM, telephones, etc.) As Stephen points out, it’s about the “dawning of conventions in the use of various message formats,” but it may be more than that as this message format has differing uses.


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