Like any communication tool, IM has to be judged for its ability to do three things:
1. connect one person to another
2. transfer content between communicators
3. perform 1 and 2 in a way that minimizes disturbance to daily workflow and other
For example, face-to-face meetings are very good for 1 and 2, but less good for 3. Twitter is great at 1, arguably good at 3, and lousy at 2. Email is bad at 1 (never sure if the other person will see your message), but good at 2 and 3.
Where does IM fall in? Let's consider each of these points separately.
Connection. Yes, IM is another thing to download, another thing to have running on your computer. It relies on people being in front of their computer most of the day. But unlike any other communication medium, IM provides a guaranteed way for the communicator to know whether the communicatee is available for discussion. Lists of contacts, with their "available," "busy," and "away" notation let you know whether the person you are trying to reach is at their computer. There's no concern that the person will never read the email or pick up the message--IM is primarily a real-time activity. And, unlike face-to-face or phone meetings, which are also real-time, you don't need to preschedule; you can find out at a glance whether the person is available or not.
The second part of "connection" has to do with platform versatility. If you call my home and I'm out with my cell, or vice versa, you might not get me. If I email you at your work address, and you don't check that one on the weekend, I'm out of luck. I may be available for discussion, but you've chosen the wrong platform/location to find me. IM shares this problem; if you don't have an IM client, I can't IM you. However, fortunately, the secondary problem associated with this (you use AIM, I use Gchat) is ameliorated if you use a global IM client like Trillian or Adium. These (free) IM clients combine your contacts from AIM, yahoo, ICQ, all kinds of clients, so you can universally IM. Of course, for IM in the workplace, it's sometimes useful to encourage staff to all sign up for the same client, so that this is a non-issue; at other, more tech-savvy institutions, universal clients allow people to connect with the usernames they already have.
Content. IM is not used for dissertations; its primary use is for short queries. Every communication medium has its own etiquette, and IMing is more permissive of curt, quick messaging that the phone or email. IM supports low-context, straightforward transfer of information. If I need to know what our visitorship was last week, I don't need to make it into a multi-sentence email or call for a chat. I can just IM you the question, and you can send me the number.
IM also has an unusual capability to transfer large files, a task that is sometimes onerous over email or FTP sites. I worked with a composer who transferred almost all of his audio files to me via IM. Yes, unlike email or FTP, it required a real-time transaction between us, but the files downloaded faster and with fewer crashes than email or FTP would allow.
Distraction. Is IM distracting? Potentially. But unlike voice-based communication, it does not distract those around you. Like email, IM is something that can paralyze your computer-based work or not, depending on how you manage it. You can set your profile as "busy" or "away" if you don't want to be disturbed. And if you are thoughtful about when to use IM and when to pick up the phone, it can save a lot of time. The same composer who sent me files would often IM me to ask a quick question. Occasionally, those quick questions turned into larger discussions, and we would immediately switch over to the phone. When IM was sufficient, it was the fastest way to make a quick decision. When it wasn't, we upgraded.
But the main distraction positive of IM has to do with regard for coworkers. Many of us work in open offices with lots of people around, and all that brainstorming and phone calling in close proximity can make focused work challenging. I had a boss with an office adjacent to a room in which 8 of us worked. When she had a question for someone, she would yell his/her name repeatedly until that person responded or someone else yelled back that that person was not around. It was efficient for her (she made the connections she needed), but a mess for the rest of us. IM could have given her a continual beat on who was and wasn't available, and a way to grab them (quietly) when she needed them.
All of the above arguments apply to all kinds of computer-based workplaces where the majority of employees sit at computers for most of the day. But what about the unique challenges and opportunities of museums? Are there specific ways IM could be applied in these institutions? Here are some creative ways I could imagine museums using IM:
- Direct Line to the Info Desk. Frequently, staff at the info desk have to put guests on hold while they contact the appropriate staff member to answer the guest's question. If museums use IM, info desk staff could get the answer quickly without making the guest wait too long, or could see that the staff member in question was not available (and not have to put the guest on hold at all).
- Visitor to Staff IMing. While this may not often be desirable, it is possible to offer guests "live chat" with a staff member via the museum website. Big retailers like IKEA offer these services as a more efficient (for them and the customers) help line. Live chat could be used as a way to ask basic questions about the museum, or the museum could offer special chat hours with experts. If the museum did not want to make such chat available to the whole world via the web, it could happen inside the galleries themselves. Visitors could type their questions into computers in exhibits and receive answers from the curators/experts during live chat hours. This could be a way (albeit less personal) for staff to do some visitor outreach while still working on other things.
- Working with contractors and remote teams. This one is not specific to museums, but to the frequent museum experience of working with remote teams. IM can be a quick way to check in, send reminders, pass photos, etc. I'm working with one company now where everyone is virtual, and everyone is constantly on IM. IM is used as a back channel to pull people into meetings, send out quick links and opinions during conference calls, and generally conduct business.