Synchronous and asynchronous conversation


telegraph email
   chat        talk
Voice-over IP
Word of mouth




Prior to the telegraph, long distance communication was done by letter or word of mouth. There was a messenger involved that covered the distance from the message origin to its destination. This is one example of asynchronous communication. One posts a message. The time at which the message will be returned is unknown. Whether or not the message will be replied to is unknown.

This form of messaging leads to certain patterns for communication. For example, when one sends a letter, the concept of the letter is thought out as a whole. It may have a beginning, a body, and a conclusion. While writing this letter, the composer is carefully monitoring the image of themselves they wish to project into the letter, and hence to the recipient of the letter.

Unless lost en route, this letter arrives to the recipient. If they choose to reply, they formulate a response in a similar manner.

With the introduction of the telegraph, the patterns of communication altered somewhat. A message was encoded into morse code and was transmitted almost instantaneously. The message was received and decoded by the telegraph operator at the other end. It has been said that with Morse's invention of the telegraph, we became space travellers.[1]

One reason for this change in communication patterns was the distribution of telegraphs. They were more commonly found in train stations than in people's homes. The content was not always of a personal nature. Message were not formally composed. This is due not only to the utilitarian nature of the medium, but also to the cost associated with encoding and transmitting. Abbreviations and improper sentences became the norm.

In some ways this is similar to letter writing. One sends a message; another receives a response and replies accordingly. A striking difference, however, is the possibility of immediate response! That is, as one receives a message, they can reply immediately. This communicative transaction went from a duration of weeks to that of minutes. The conversation patterns reflect this. There may be one or two work responses because the concept or topic of conversation is still fresh between the persons involved. This interaction has become more synchronous than that of letter writing.

The telephone took this trend towards synchronicity a step further. While the telegraph did not prevail in the home environment, the telephone had more success. It allowed for people to have real-time synchronous conversations over large distances. As the technology improved, it became easier to have a conversation that mimicked face-to-face interaction. People were still able to monitor how they wished to project themselves, however, they had less time to do so, and there were other cues such as ambient environment sounds and voice inflections that were transmitted via the telephone as well. Such cues are not as easily encoded into the letter or telegraph unless they are explicitly sent by the composer. With these cues, the telephone not only transmitted conversation, but it augmented it by transmitting an audio representation of the remote environment.

Email and the telegraph have many timing similarities. Text messages are sent from one destination to another. The duration of time until a response can vary from seconds, to months, to no response at all. The form of the message varies from person to person, however, email can be far more informal than letter correspondence. Some messages may directly mimic the form of a letter. Others may be one word responses or an emoticon with a copy of the prior message attached, and still others might be just question. Different styles evolve from group to group and from person to person. One major difference that this electronic medium has allowed for is mass postings. That is, it allows form the same message to me sent instantaneously from one person to a group of people. [2]

Usenet is one example of this. It is asynchronous conversation between a large group of people. Essentially, it forms a a public gathering space where email is the primary form of communication. Message styles inherit those of email. They are sometimes addressed to the crowd, sometimes to an individual, and sometimes break off into private conversations.

Chatting and instant messaging move even closer towards synchronous communcation. There is a sense of a live imminent connection. The parties involved are each aware of a possible interaction. A message is composed and then sent. Unless the recipient has exited the system prior to receiving the message, they may formulate a response and send it. Again, the duration of time between messages may vary, however, the awareness of the other's presence creates an expectation of acknowledgment if not response.

The talk messaging system possesses a slight difference in interactive style that greatly alters the conversation pattern. When using talk, the user does not compose a complete thought and then send it. Rather, each letter character appears to the recipient as the sentence is composed. This allows for flexibility in instantaneously altering the image or intent that is being projected across the channel. This is similar to sentence repair in face-to-face situated conversation. This talk system lies somewhere between instant messaging and telephone conversation on the synchronicity scale.



[1] G. Gumper and R. Cathcart. Media distance and interpersonal intimacy. Inter/Media: Interpersonal communication in a media world. NY: Oxford University Press. 1979.

[2] L.Sproull and S. Kiesler. Connections: new ways of working in the networked organization. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. 1991. pp. 1-36.