I’ve written about synchronicity vs. asynchronicity before, but I wanted to revisit the subject because it seems to be so key to modern services; as more and more communication mechanisms evolve out of available technology and entrepreneurs’ imagination, understanding customer’s usage patterns will be important when developing businesses around them. An excellent article by Gregor Hohpe, Starbucks Does Not Use Two-Phase Commit (included in Joel Spolsky’s Best Software Writing Vol. 1), is an examination of why understanding computer science concepts such as 2PC (and, I would argue, synchronicity) is important when engaging in business process engineering. There’s a large overlap between business and software engineering here, and this is why IBM sells products like WebSphere Process Server together with business consultants to help customers implement them. There are a number of other essays in Spolsky’s excellent book which also discuss related subjects.
Clay Shirky, in his essay A Group is Its Own Worst Enemy (also included in the same volume; the online copy is edited slightly differently from the printed one), notes how online (synchronous) discussions frequently descend into talk about sex - and that sexual banter is much more common in synchronous communication than asynchronous (how often have you flirted with someone over the phone compared to email? - please, no anecdotes in the comments section). I’m not a psychologist, but I assume that this has something to do with it being hard to retain the thrill of adult banter over the course of a (potentially lengthy) asynchronous discussion. The same arguments probably apply in a less dramatic fashion to non-sexual communication.
There’s a related observation to be made about the perceived economics of people’s time. In general, most folks implicitly value synchronous time as higher than asynchronous - if I ask advice of a mentor over a half-hour coffee, I feel more indebted to him than if he spends half an hour hour answering my email. I suspect the reasons are a combination of my having accurate information (I know exactly how long he spent drinking the coffee), the start-up and tear-down time (he actually took 5 minutes to get to the coffee shop), and knowing that I have his undivided attention (he wasn’t multi-tasking). Nevertheless, we still continue to rate synchronous time more highly than its opportunity costs compared to asynchronous time.
To relate the two assertions, wouldn’t you rather spend half an hour in person with your spouse / significant other / other politically correct phrase than an hour writing and exchanging emails with them? Synchronous communication has a strange attraction than its poor cousin doesn’t - despite all of asynchronicity’s time-shifting advantages. This is going to be a big challenge for a multi-time-zone world.