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Who Uses IM For Work? May 8, 2008

Posted by gordonwatts in physics life.

On the drive from Marseille to Genova I asked the 3 others in the car if they used Instant Messaging (IM). I was the oldest in the car (getting close to 42!) and the rest ranged from mid thirties to late thirties. All are like me in that they have permanent positions. All have students, though I was the only professor – the rest were at labs around France.

How many people used IM for work? None other than me. Who used IM at all? None, other than me. On the way back I was in a car with graduate students – so mid to early twenties – but I totally forgot to ask them. However, since I rode with their advisors on the way out there I can be pretty safe in guessing they don’t use IM for conversations about physics with their advisors.

So, I have a bunch of questions. Do people use it mainly for social interactions? Or am I just in a bubble and it turns out that lots and lots of people use it for work and I just move in the wrong circles?

It was the day, not much more than two decades ago, that HEP lead the world in computing hardware and (to a lesser extent) software. We had to push it forward – the power and flexibility was just not there. I think if you look at the way we operate now – it looks very similar to how it looked back in the ’60’s. Command line. Simple text editors (vi and emacs are BIG). Batch jobs. The older set are only just getting off pine – a text/terminal mail program (moving mostly to the FireFox mail mail reader, and some to web clients).

Is there something holding us back? Or are we as a field voting with our feet: these things don’t help us get new physics results out? Perhaps we usually are in labs where you can run from one office to another and so email is good enough? IM interrupts our workflow and so we don’t want to let it in? What about all those Web 2.0 tools out there? Much of that is based on social networks and so if a lot of physicists don’t get on there, then it doesn’t really help. Are we slowly building critical mass? Or does it just not excite us yet?


Just to make sure I stay ahead of the curve, I’m trying out friend feed – think of it as a way to aggregate all of your online activities… Of course, I don’t have many online activities.



1. Mike Procario - May 8, 2008

We had Microsoft Communicator installed by our computing support group. AIM was blocked at the firewall. Most people in the office refuse to even log into it. They do not want to be interrupted. I had used it for awhile, but there weren’t enough others using it to make it worthwhile.

I had tried to use AIM to chat with my daughter away at college. I could not stand it. She was clearly multitasking, so back and forth flow was sporadic. I just sat there waiting for replies. It seems to be a very different mode of communication which I do not have the patience for.

I think there is an age issue but it is not about picking up a new technology. It is easy enough to use. I love learning new technology that fits what I need to do. I use three different mail clients on three different platforms, Thunderbird on Windows, Evolution on Linux, Mail.app on OS X. I bought Devonthink on Mac OS X for taking notes. I find it much more effective than using a plain word processor or text editor sue to the search function and tagging features.

2. Camille B.-Champagne - May 8, 2008

I use IM for work, mainly with my the other students of my institute, when some of us are at CERN and others home. I do have 1 of the profs of the group in my contact list but we typically only have extremely short exchanges, a simple question with a rapid answer.

So no, it’s not just you. And trust me, your students probably appreciate it if you can be reached that way. I know I do.

3. Pace - May 8, 2008

My advisor occasionally uses IM to communicate about research issues. That’s at least one other experimental physics professor using IM in addition to yourself. It’s really useful in some cases because (and this is with us using iChat) we can send files back and forth and make changes more rapidly than emailing documents and waiting for a response. If I had a camera on my desktop we might videoconference more, though I don’t know whether that is more productive than typing short sentences.

4. hrivnac - May 8, 2008

I use IM both for social contacts (with my daughter and with my friends) and a bit for work. I find it a good compromise between slow mail and (too) fast phone. IM is very useful for collaborative debugging:
user A) try xxx
user B) OK, I will test it
user B (5 minutes later)) I’ve tried and it does yyy
user A) OK, let me see
user A (5 minutes later)) OK, so the problem seems to be zzz

It works like this quite well.

Concerning technology, I use mostly ICQ, but I’m subscribed to several other systems (AIM, Jabber, Google Talk, Skype) .I’m using FriendFeed too, as well as del.icio.us and Google Reader (which allows sharing of tags).

5. benn tannenbaum - May 9, 2008

when I was teaching at UCLA I used IM for virtual office hours. It worked very well for those not afraid to use it…

6. MIke M - May 9, 2008

Who doesn’t ?! I think CMS would collapse without IM. It’s the only way short of polycom/phone that you can get a meaningful response on a reasonable time scale. The bulk of my useful communication each day is via IM, although sometimes we all have to hide. Plus, without the custom ‘status’, how would you know what part of the world (or which meeting) your coworkers are in?

7. gordonwatts - May 9, 2008

Wow — thanks for all the comments!

Mike — how many “work” contacts do you have in your list?

Benn — I have done the same for my undergradute courses. They seemed to really like it, especially asking me a question at 1am the night before HW was due.

Mike P. — yes — for all these new tools you need a critical mass in order to make it useful. Perhaps in HEP we need something that integrates the message boards and IM together. 🙂

Cammille — Yes, I think you are right. My current usage pattern is a HEP related IM conversation every other day or so (with a student or other collegue). Much more frequent are socal pings “how are you doing?” or “I’m off to pick up Julia at daycare now”.

hrivnac & Mike P — for disconnected conversations IM works quite well. I’m not sure it replaces the phone, however, if one party or the other expects to be fully engaged in the conversation. It is much more like email in that sense — people tend to do several things at once. If both parties aren’t, then it doesn’t work. And in the case where one person needs to do something for 10 minutes to respond, IM is perfect – way better than a phone.

8. Alex - May 9, 2008

IM (mostly iChat and AIM) is used all the time by the detector commissioning groups at CMS. I have more than 20 work contacts and I see people using it all around the control room for almost all detectors. I guess professors use it less but we don’t get many of those in the control room….

9. gordonwatts - May 9, 2008

Alex — sweet. It sounds like there are pockets — groups of people that use IM – since the whole group uses it, it makes it useful (i.e. critical mass). I wonder if there groups like that in ATLAS?

10. Chip - May 9, 2008

Hi Gordon,
I have been IMing for years, personally, within HEP, and within classes. I learned this by watching my kids.

Personally: When I’m spread about, I enjoy keeping in contact with my (now adult) kids. And, now that we’re a very empty nest, my wife and I IM, she from her study at home upstairs and me from my study at home, downstairs. hmm.

Within classes: I’m convinced that the etiquette of IM for student-professor interaction is nicely placed among email (highly asynchronous and time-displaced, and without personal penalty for ignoring) and the phone (synchronous, with less of a stress for ignoring, but obviously once you commit, you’re unable to decouple) and appearing at someone’s office (synchronous with a large social penalty for ignoring!). I know that I am asked things in the dead of night that students would never ask in person or in class, or even in email. I’ve solved physics problems many times in IM (“draw a rectangle, and draw an arrow from its center pointing down…”) I like it that I can have multiple sessions open and nobody’s particularly upset if a response is delayed. It’s just the nature of it.

Leaving “within HEP” for last: I’m astonished at how luddite we are as a social entity. I can get my graduate students to IM and a particular younger professor to IM…and our secretary…but my senior and peer colleagues? Nope. If they have the tool, they turn it on when they want to send something, but otherwise it’s off. Weird. It is useful with fermilab esnet video conferences since it’s the only way to alert them to reboot their polycom system when it goes into its computer-speak electronic language mode. I would like to see much more of it within our experiments, but my suggestions of it have fallen on deaf ears, or I’m greeted with a look of astonishment as if I have time to use a toy.

You’ve “listened” to me before about other “web 2.0” “cloud computing” capabilities. My major unhappiness: serial, endless email for commenting on memos or papers. We rarely blog, we twiki now increasingly, and we rarely use bulletin boards. We certainly don’t cooperatively write or share spreadsheets or produce slides collectively (does anyone use slideshare?). I’m thinking of a blog for the DPF executive committee.

11. MIke M - May 14, 2008

So I just counted up the # of contacts I have in my contact list: 65. Of those two are personal (my wife and her brother). A handful are MIT specific (4), the rest are all cms coworkers. The downside is if I want to really hide, I have to quickly disable my IM client when I open my laptop before people see me flash online and start sending requests. I would say that in cms I am probably, if anything, on the low end of the # contacts I have listed.

12. Check out the IM Post Comments « Life as a Physicist - May 15, 2008

[…] wrote a few days about about using IM at work. Old people social networking (!?). At any rate, the comments there are much more interesting than the post. If you’ve not read them I strongly encourage you to go back and take a look. So I just […]

13. Nick - May 15, 2008

Quite the opposite effect occurs in the technology sector where geeks exclusively have contact over IM and their employers try to get them to meet face-to-face once in a while.

As someone who regularly uses IM for work chat and fights the opposite battle, you can tell after a while who doesn’t mind being bothered in person and who likes to be dealt with over IM. Personally, I like using it as a note pad. I’ll talk with someone in person at my desk I’ll send the important stuff (urls, short snippets of code that I can type while talking) over IM while we’re discussing things.

14. gordonwatts - May 17, 2008

Nick – Yes – that is a great way to use it. I’ve done that before with students – I’ll be looking over their shoulder and they will be showing me an interesting paper and they will IM me the URL for the paper. Definately.

15. Chip - June 17, 2008

Hi Gordon,
Quite randomly, my son posted on his blog…about IMing at work, with another interesting link:


16. What Tools Do You Use? « Life as a Physicist - July 11, 2008

[…] July 10, 2008 Posted by gordonwatts in computers, physics life. trackback I’ve previously written about using IM to get your work done. How about a more general question – what else do you […]

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