From an internal Basecamp announcement re: pings/IMs

Direct/instant messaging is something many people are doing more and more often at work. And while it’s a handy way to quickly get ahold of someone, it’s a forceful interruption often coupled with an expectation of a quick response. That makes it costly communication. And that’s why the etiquette around it is important.

Recently we noticed some internal behavior around pings (Basecamp 3’s name for direct/instant messages) that we didn’t like. David and I discussed it and we decided to post an internal announcement to everyone at Basecamp detailing the problem as we saw it. We also suggested ways to improve the efficacy of a ping, and reduce the burden of empty notifications for everyone.

I figured this might help other people outside our walls, so here’s the announcement in full (and here’s a link to the announcement in Basecamp itself if you want to share or reference it elsewhere):

📢 “Ping” / “You there?” / “Yo” / “Hey”

Direct one-to-one (or small group) messaging is an important part of working together. It’s very useful in a variety of situations.

But there’s a dark side. I’ve been seeing it crop up more and more, including in my own behavior, so I wanted to call it out and make sure we’re all aware of it (and stop doing it).

Do you ever start a ping with someone by first trying to get their attention? You say “ping” or “there?” Or “hey!” Or “Yo” (or whatever). You begin with a whistle, and then you only send the rest of your thoughts once someone has whistled back. I do this all the time. It’s time to stop.

Sending a ping with no information would be like sending an email with a subject “Hey” but with no body. Then only when someone emailed you back saying “What’s up?” would you follow up with a separate email containing your complete thought. That would be silly, but it’s exactly what we’re doing with pings.

What’s worse, compared to emails, pings are very interruptive. Being pulled away from your work to check out something with no information in it is bad for everyone involved.

So, let’s think of pings more like emails. You wouldn’t send an email asking if someone’s around to respond. You’d send the email — a complete thought — and someone would eventually get it, read it, and respond in kind. So when we send pings, don’t lead off with an empty “you there?” question. Instead, share the complete thought so when someone sees it they can respond with an answer, vs a “Yeah, why?”

So instead of…
Me: Ping. You: What’s up? Me: Got time to catch up today at 3:30pm? You: Sure. Me: How’s team room 2? You: Perfect, see you then.

You’d send…
Me: Got time to catch up today at 3:30pm to review the latest breadcrumb design? You: Yup, how’s team room 2? Me: Perfect, see you then.

In the first example, I started with a whistle — just an empty “Ping”. You had no idea why I was writing, so you had to respond with another empty whistle back.

In the second example, I my initiation included my complete ask. When you see it, you respond with a complete thought back.

The differences are subtle, but meaningful — especially when multiplied by the hundreds of initial pings we each likely receive every year. If you’re going to reach out and talk to someone directly, give them information to act on, don’t just whistle at them and wait for them to ask what you’re whistling about.

This should help introduce a bit more calm into direct messaging. It should cut back on the number of individual notifications, and also help everyone get to the point quicker so they don’t get pulled away from their work without a clear reason.

If I ping you with a “ping” or “hey” or “there” — please call me out on it!

— Jason

David added a comment:

Couldn’t agree more, and I want to cop to being as guilty of this as anyone.

In addition to using pings with greater care, I think it’s worth considering when posting the purpose of your ping as a fully formed message or todo in a fitting project could work instead. I’ve often pinged someone about something that really just needs to be a todo request or a message to the team. I will do better.

One way I’ve been thinking about pings is this: If we were in an office, would this be important enough for me to walk over to someone’s desk, interrupt them in whatever deep thought they might be in, and ask this? The answer is frequently no.

And it’s even worse with pings because you can’t see the rest of the foot traffic. Your interruption may well just be a quick question, but it may also well be the fifth someone had to field that day.

None of this means you shouldn’t ask questions, or seek help, or get input. Just that you should think about the timeliness of your requests and what format is the best fit.

I hope this was useful.