These are technologies that all support constant presence. MSN, Yahoo, Skype and most virtual worlds enable users to log in, and then carry on with other work. The software then runs in the background. Other users on a contact list can then see that you are logged on, and then either contact you, or not. This facilitates ad hoc communication, so exchange of information can occur spontaneously.
These forms of communication, for experienced users, can be a natural and free-flowing form of communication that supports many of the experiences of face-to-face communication. For convergence these can be a valuable substitute for face-to-face.
These technologies support many users communicating at one time, so small group meetings can take place through them.
The software is free and the hardware required is minimal (a headset for VoIP and a camera plus headset for videoconferencing).
However, there are some disadvantages if using these as a form of communication for the project team:
- Having the technologies running in the background can be distracting – a spontaneous exchange of information can be a negative as well as a positive thing.
- Users that do not have these running constantly will need to be occasionally contacted and meetings planned ahead of time.
- Scheduling meetings is easier than with face-to-face communication but can still be an issue, particularly across different time zones, making these more complicated to conduct than any of the asynchronous media.
- Taking part in these forms of communication requires the adoption of certain skills and conventions.
- Some technical issues may be a barrier.
If you are thinking of using these methods as part of the communication strategy for the research team:
- Set aside some time to have these technologies running, but do not have them running constantly – the online equivalent of having the office door open sometimes and shut at others. These can be scheduled ahead of time if you want to formalise the arrangement. This supports the ad hoc potential of the technology, without it dominating your working time.
- Provide an opportunity for new users to acclimatise to the new technologies. Have trial runs with new users before the meetings to ensure they are comfortable with them.
- Consider direct instruction, or attending workshops, if there is a perceived need to learn about some of the less self-evident conventions (e.g. IM not chat someone for a one-to-one communication in a text-based meeting, pause not stop camera if stepping out of a videoconference, the correct usage of emoticons for text chat).