Interaction and outeraction: Instant messaging in action

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Citation: Bonnie A. Nardi, Steve Whittaker, Erin Bradner (2000) Interaction and outeraction: Instant messaging in action. Proceedings of the 2000 ACM conference on Computer supported cooperative work (RSS)
DOI (original publisher): 10.1145/358916.358975
Semantic Scholar (metadata): 10.1145/358916.358975
Sci-Hub (fulltext): 10.1145/358916.358975
Internet Archive Scholar (search for fulltext): Interaction and outeraction: Instant messaging in action
Tagged: Computer Science (RSS) CSCW (RSS), communication (RSS)


Bonnie Nardi, Steve Whittaker, and Eric Bradner paper describes the findings from an ethnographic study of instant messaging (IM) in the workplace. The ethnographic piece offers a description of how instant messaging is used for a variety of tasks that are flexible and information. The major theoretical contribution of the paper is the concept of outeraction which the authors observe in their ethnographic work and that essentially involves people using IM to contact others to see if they can then talk to them -- essentially as a way of managing communication. This mode of meta-communication does not serve to exchange information directly and, they argue, is not part of current media theorizing.

After a background into what IM is and how it works (hardly necessary today given the widespread nature of the technology), the authors describe an ethnographic experiment with 20 people that showed that IM was used primarily for quick questions and clarifications, for coordination and scheduling, to coordinate impromptu meetings, to keep in touch with family and friends while at work. The authors show that users use IM to negotiate the availability of others, show how IM is used intermittent episodes, how it used to maintain a sense of connection, and how it often used to switch media (e.g., to suggest that the users switch to a phone call or meet in person).

The authors frame the majority of their paper on a particular subset of these materials with the authors describe as outeraction. The authors suggest that 60% of phone calls fail to reach their target and describe outeraction as a kind of meta-conversation about whether or not a conversation may be possible. They describe preambles to conversations (e.g., "you around"), intermittant conversations, and "awareness moments" which might refer to simple, often "meaningless" check-ins, and connections. They also show that discussions, when they are initiated often involve a switch of media to one that is more appropriate to higher bandwidth or lower latency conversation.

Theoretical and Practical Relevance

Like Finholt and Sproull's (1990) Electronic groups at work, the ethnographic portion paper has not aged well even over the last ten years in that much of what it reports is now commonplace and taken-for-granted by many readers. That said, the concept of outeraction seems to have more generic appeal and is likely to be useful in a variety of different CSCW and organizational IT contexts.

Indeed, the paper has now been cited more than 800 times in the 800. Some of these are to other IM papers, where it has become a core citations, but also to work on communication technologies more generally and a variety of other CSCW, communication-focused or influenced streams.