The Vanished IM. Something needs to be done about it.

I’ve been thinking about Second Life communication. Again.

Text communication in Second Life is a minefield. I’ve spoken to you before about the deadly danger of the Fatal Crosspost and the weaponised absence-of-emoticon that is the Withheld Smiley. Painful instances of textual intercourse though these might be, they are at least an outcome of our own doing. But there is one enemy to smooth and carefree conversation in SL that you can do absolutely nothing about, and it can strike anyone at any moment and without warning. I call this the Vanished IM, and it’s really starting to annoy me.

The Vanished IM is that line of text you type into a private communication with someone which then just mysteriously vanishes, by which I mean the intended recipient does not receive it. But here’s the thing: the Vanished IM doesn’t vanish at all to the sender. If it vanished to the sender then that person would know – or at least have good reason to suspect – that the recipient never received it. They would then have another go at sending it. This, however, does not happen, because the Vanished IM makes no attempt whatsoever to let the sender know it never made the journey it got sent it on.

In almost all other forms of text communication, a failed message makes its failure known to the sender. An email to a non-existent address comes back red-faced and hanging its head in shame, begging forgiveness for not being able to do what, as an email, it was born to accomplish. A phone text message that can’t find a signal strong enough to get hold of to pull its way to its destination – hand-over-hand, if necessary – lands back on your phone, crumpled and exhausted, telling you of its mission failure with its last, dying gasp.

Not so the Vanished IM. The Vanished IM just sits there all innocent in your IM window, feet up and comfortably snuggled in beneath all those other lines of text that actually did their job, and you have no idea that its journey from the typing bar to the window just above is the sum distance that this particular message could be bothered to travel. Only after an hour or two of failed casual flirting with a sentence three lines above does it glance at its watch, roll its eyes at the onerous chore of communication it’s been tasked with, stub out its tenth cigarette and finally depart, only to end up in the offline IM box for the now logged-out recipient.

The consequences of a Vanished IM are many and varied. It all depends, of course, on the length and importance of the message. The odd missing ‘lol’ here or there will probably do very little harm beyond a privately raised eyebrow of annoyance from the recipient for not having had the hilarity of their last remark acknowledged. And it all depends as well on the nature of the communication you ordinarily have with the other person. If you’re anything like me, there are those people you’ll happily natter away to in multiple-line chunks, entering statement after statement until the point you want to make or the tale you want to tell is finally done; and then there are those more distant acquaintances for whom some strange internet decorum demands that conversation must be a strictly turn-taking affair, whereby a single line is the maximum that can be entered at a time without appearing in some way arrogant, narcissistic or borderline psychotic (ok, two lines if a more complex comment needs to be made; three in an absolute emergency). It is to this second category of relationship that the Vanished IM can be particularly damaging, bringing to an abrupt halt what appeared to be a perfectly cordial conversation, with both parties awaiting a response to their last remark. What can they possibly conclude from this sudden ending? You already know the answer to this: they conclude that the other person found someone more interesting to talk to.

As for the first category of relationship, Vanished IMs almost always seem to be pivotal remarks, the important side turnings in the meandering road trip of social conversation which then get inexplicably driven past without the slightest nod of acknowledgement. Questions in particular seem to be particularly prone to becoming Vanished IMs. “What do you think of my new hair?” “Shall we go dancing tonight?” “Can I come and see your new house?” Cheerfully, optimistically, maybe even excitedly, longingly or lovingly typed out, they hang there at the bottom of the conversation, blinking at you innocently, and meanwhile the Gap In Conversation Time Markers start to slide past. 10 seconds: they’re thinking about it. 20 seconds: they’re thinking about it more than I want them to think about it. 30 seconds: they’re telling someone else they’re in a conversation with me. 60 seconds: they’re not telling someone else they’re in a conversation with me. And so on. The likelihood is you’ll eventually crumble and offer up some sort of unrelated remark in a feeble attempt to keep the conversation alive (and which will add yet another drop to that ever growing pot of self-loathing hidden away in your psyche). And then your correspondent does the worst thing possible: they reply to this new remark, but not to the one before it.

We’re all familiar with the concept of the Vanished IM. But we’re also familiar with the concept of the Missed IM. The Missed IM does do its job. The Missed IM does make it to the other person’s IM window. The Missed IM, basically, just gets missed – perhaps because the recipient was momentarily distracted or perhaps because they were looking down to write out their own comment and didn’t see yours appear. The sender’s problem in the situation outlined above, then, is to try to determine whether the IM they sent (a) vanished, (b) was missed, or (c) was so utterly repellent to the receiver that they were unable to formulate a chatty reply that wouldn’t betray their complete and utter revulsion. Unless your unanswered question had something to do with the ‘Backdoor’ button on an animation menu, the chances are that (c) is actually pretty unlikely. Yet, insecure wrecks that we are, even the most innocuous of unanswered questions causes us to worry that we’ve trodden on something fragile without realising it, or catastrophically misread in some way the nature of the relationship which exists between us.

The simplest thing to do, of course, would be to just ask the question again. And this is where we really tie ourselves up in knots. In the event that they have intentionally not answered my question, we tell ourselves, they must know that I know they have not provided an answer. They are likely hoping that I also know that they know they have not replied, and that I understand the reasons for this. By repeating my question, then, I will surely demonstrate my incompetence at receiving this communication and lower my position in their eyes even further than it clearly is right now. I’ll play it safe and pretend that the sentence never happened: it’s obviously what they want me to do. That the overall likelihood that our unanswered IM actually was intentionally ignored must surely be at or below the 5% mark is neither here nor there: the negative consequences of this outcome are so heinous that it simply isn’t worth taking the risk over.

This is why other messaging formats have their fail mechanism: as human beings, we simply can’t be trusted to draw statistically sound conclusions from unanswered messages. We always assume the worst. Someone, somewhere, who was somehow connected to the creation of text messaging must have once said, “We can at least let the poor bastards know if their message never actually made it.” We need a dose of this wisdom in SL. Forget about cloud migration. Forget about the mobile client.* For 17 years now these malicious little character strings have been chipping away at the self-esteem of SLers, eroding their confidence piece by piece, emptying out their joy of virtual living and leaving them lifeless husks compared to their once ebullient selves. They’re so bewildered they’ve even concluded that Gachas are an exciting thing.

Something has to be done about this. Fast.

*Please don’t take me seriously, Linden; I do really want you to work on these things.

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