Catching the Wave: Tempo — Up, Down and everything in-between

Let’s talk about the concept of “tempo”. (For this term, I have to thank Stowe Boyd, who introduced us to it while I was at Zingdom — I think it’s evocative and right.) It’s helpful to think of online social tools as being focused on either “up-tempo” or “down-tempo” conversation.

Email is the classic example of a “down-tempo” tool. It takes a while for a message to get from the sender to the recipient, and the ecosystem has evolved around that. Conversations often last a long time, pinging and ponging over the course of days. The assumption, when you send a message, is that the recipients may not be present, so their messages are saved, and they might respond at any later time. The conversation is gradual in its pace.

IM, on the other hand, is “up-tempo”. While there are exceptions, most IM conversations take place between people who are present at their computers right now, and everything is built around that. Presence is key in IM: if the other person isn’t online, you probably don’t bother to talk to them right now. There are no guarantees of reliability: if you send them a message, and they’re not online, they may never get it.

The thing to keep in mind about Wave is that it is multi-tempo. If everyone is present, it can get very fast and interactive — indeed, even more interactive than IM. But all changes are stored, and it is specifically designed so that, if you come to the conversation three hours later, you can catch up.

This is a big deal: while Wave isn’t the only system built for multi-tempo, it takes the problem more seriously than most. It’s specifically intended to let you collaborate very effectively and interactively when multiple people are present, but still be easy to jump in later and catch up.

Chad has pointed out to me that the terms “synchronous” and “asynchronous” are often used where I use “up-tempo” and “down-tempo”. They’re nearly synonyms, but I prefer the “tempo” approach mostly because it implies less of a dichotomy. We generally think of “synchronous” and “asynchronous” as very different modes of communication, and they traditionally are — you can lump most online media into one or the other. But the reality is that it’s a sliding scale, even for the more traditional media but especially on Wave, so I have a mild personal preference for terminology that matches that.

Pushing and Pulling

Closely related to this is the question of “push” vs. “pull” methods of interaction. In their most traditional modes, email is “pull” — you go to a mailbox on your own time, and look for new stuff that has come in — whereas IM is “push” — when someone has a new message for you, you get immediate notification so that you can reply immediately.

Of course, these lines have been blurring for years. Many IM systems allow pull: if you’re not around, they will save the messages you have missed until you log in again. And my email is now very “push” — my cell phone rings when I get a message via Gmail.

Wave takes a very pragmatic view of this: it allows you to use both push and pull pretty much as you want, and is well-optimized for both. In particular, it’s designed to push stuff to you instantly if you’re around, but makes it easy to catch up later if you’re not. I’ll talk about this more in a couple of days.

Next: Threading the Conversation

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One Response to “Catching the Wave: Tempo — Up, Down and everything in-between”

  1. Catching the Wave: Prologue « The Art of Conversation Says:

    […] Tempo: Up, Down and Everything In-between […]

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