Thursday, September 22, 2005

Confessions of an Electronic Organization Junkie

I’ve only recently moved from the world of cubicles back into the halls of academia, and in the process, I’ve discovered how comfortable I’ve become with using technology to organize my life in the last few years.

I knew, of course, from the fabled paper-crowded state of my cubicle that while I could find out most things electronically in a few seconds, I was getting worse and worse at filing printed matter. And I knew that while I’d always failed at keeping track of my schedule in a paper-bound day-planner, I had become completely comfortable with using Outlook to keep track of my meetings. I knew that email and IM had become normal ways to communicate. And I was still awed by the program I’d recently found to transfer to-do lists and other notes to my iPod, even though it didn’t work quite perfectly.

It made sense—after all, my job for the last five years has been to organize web content. And for the last two years, I’d been studying usability of electronic interfaces. During those periods, I clearly had lots of opportunity to find the advantages of electronic organization methods as well as their limitations. And to figure out which ones worked for me and which didn’t.

But until I went back to school as a graduate student and looked around for ways to organize my student life more efficiently than I’d done as an undergraduate, I didn’t realize how much I’d learned to appreciate technology as a means to that end. Although there are lots of laptops on campus and an impressive intranet system, I’m surprised at how many standard 3-hole-punched notebooks, folders, and overheads I’ve seen in classes. What a culture shock for one coming from the world hailing the joys of the new technology.

Of course, I was as annoyed as anyone when the university’s intranet was mostly down the first week of classes. But it has a great little calendar function where I can keep track of my meetings, my class times, and my tasks, and that makes me happy. And though I’m doing okay with the paper handouts so far (I even bought folders last week to organize them), I have great joy when there’s an electronic edition.

There are, of course, things it’s better to use paper for, organization-wise (and after all, I write most creative writing drafts on paper). But since I’m not big on taking a lot of time to organize my life and have found some helpful electronic tools, I find myself using those more than the other versions of the tools. And I wonder, in the future, whether that will be the trend, gradual though it may be. I doubt if electronic media will ever replace paper (I really don’t think paper books, for instance, are going away soon), but I wonder in what new unexpected ways paper will shift its place in society in the future. Some things--and some people--will surely always use it, and reject new technologies, or selectively adopt new technologies. And personalities, and people's organizational styles, will always have a certain part in dictating which technologies people adopt. After all, I still refuse to own a palm pilot.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Welcome to "im here"--and reflections on the blog title

Greetings and welcome to "im here," a blog focusing on how technology affects creativity and communication in the English language. In this blog, I'll explore multiple facets of this topic, from how email, IM, the Web, new software and other new media are changing the way we write and edit and talk to each other in the English language to how technologies affect creative pursuits, particularly writing.

I'll be exploring more in later posts, so I won't get too far into the topic now. But before I go, I'd like to explore the title of the blog. It's "im here," as in either "I'm here" or "I am here." When I started using instant messaging about a year and a half ago, I was fascinated to watch my written communication patterns on that medium change in many cases to a sort of shorthand, dropping punctuation, capitals, and other such important marks that help along the meaning of sentences in more formal written English. Soon I was using phrases such as "r u there?" and "im here" in IMing with friends and colleagues. I wasn't sure what to think about this.

The English major/grammarian/editor in me was appalled. If I--and people in general--started dropping the very conventions by which clear written communication is most easily understood, would that negatively affect our ability to communicate with others? And would we start to assume that we could communicate using these shorthand formats in other media and genres that wouldn't support this sort of thing, spreading widespread confusion and miscommunication across the earth? What about the thirteen-year-olds who couldn't distinguish between styles, genres, and audiences and assumed their school reports could be written this way as well?

On the other hand, the linguistics/communications researcher in me was fascinated by the way my writing was changing in IM. After all, I knew that there are different levels of formality required by different media and different situations, and most media and genres require slightly different writing styles. When you're chatting with someone on IM, it's more like an informal conversation with someone in person than a formal address to an audience--or, in the written genres, than to an article or research paper. Although the other person in the conversation isn't right there to communicate via non-verbals, they are right there to clarify anything the other participant doesn't understand. Because of that, the medium doesn't need quite as many of the conventions of written English, in the same way that a face-to-face conversation among friends can be peppered with "uh"s and sentence fragments, but still is understood by the participants. And all languages are constantly evolving, whether for better or for worse. It's fun to watch them change.

Besides the grammarian and the communications researcher, the creative part of me that loves to play with words was interested in the possibilities in this new way to use words. I knew that taking away the "rules" or at least using them differently can at times allow for creativity to emerge in new ways and places. Although guidelines for language usage and style are valuable and important in many situations for precise communication to an audience, anyone working in the English field for long realizes that there are strong disagreements among authorities about the most basic building blocks of grammar and style. As a creative writer/fan of word play, I was quick to realize that some fascinating ambiguities in language arise when you write in shorthand, and ambiguities are the playground of the poet. Word enthusiasts can spend enjoyable hours reflecting on the various meanings of "im here"--how it can mean "I'm here," "I am here," and/or "IM here" (as in the acronym for instant messaging).

In the end, although I determined to keep it the style strictly to IM unless there was a good reason to do otherwise, I decided to go on using shorthand when IMing with most people that are used to the medium. The practical side of me realized that to keep the conversation flowing, less keystrokes is better as far as IM is concerned. The other person nearly always asks for clarification if they don't understand what I'm saying. And I have a lot of fun watching for ambiguities and places where the misunderstandings do and don't occur in my IM conversations.

At the same time, I'm always watching for ways this new style of writing will affect other genres and media.

So, on this blog, "I'm here" (punctuation and capitalization included) with my reflections about these and related matters. But on IM, I'll say instead that "im here."

I'd love to hear your comments on my reflections, so keep in touch.