Shouting into the void

Instant messaging, ‘chat with a librarian’, and VoIP reference services all suggest a great paradigm shift in information services. Reaching out and engaging with clients through modern communication tools and directly answering queries sounds fantastic. What’s not to love?

My own support experiences (on the receiving end of queries) have shown me that communicating through these channels can be a boon to improving customer experiences, provide timely and accurate resolutions, and facilitate a culture of complacency, belligerence, apathy, and exploitation among lazy and petulant users.

That went off the rails quickly.

Don’t get me wrong, I undeniably see the benefit of these services. But the ubiquitous availability of helpdesks, instant chat services, and support lines has only fed a growing sense of entitlement that is pervasive in today’s information seeking behaviours. Clients, customers, or library patrons expect to get exactly what they want with minimal effort expended. A certain subset of these users will simply expect that any complicated work is done for them—and often become belligerent when they aren’t catered to immediately.

This isn’t exactly a new problem. Unruly clients and surly customers have always had problems with customer service structures. Users with a certain pre-disposition are always going to cause issues. But, the anonymity afford by IM chat services gives a layer of abstraction that suddenly ‘permits’ abandoning social norms, and it quickly becomes acceptable to act like a petulant child or a raving lunatic.

I realise I’m being hyperbolic here, but technology is not a universal panacea. Creating a chat or IM service to support users will certainly allow new avenues of support. But, time-and-time-again I encounter people who have no sense of online etiquette or decorum. People who treat anything that happens online as a free-for-all where they are entitled to act however they please, and exploit and take advantage of anyone willing to put up with it.

Chat and IM services are great for the consciences user; they often provide that magical experience of meeting and exceeding your expectations. For the lazy, angry, or mindlessly indulgent user they’re nothing more than another service that implicitly owes them something or can be exploited.

And for the diligent operator? These foul exploiters do nothing more than ruin it for everyone else.