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Craig A. Thompson: Communicating unintended consequences

Clearly, there comes a time when the realities of a changing society force us to re-examine the way we behave and respond.

For example, it was only a matter of time before condiment manufacturers like Heinz and Hunt’s caught up with the fact that people do not like squeezing, shaking and hitting the bottoms of ketchup bottles, and recently developed upside-down “easy squeeze” bottles. It didn’t take too long before manufacturers figured out that people like the warmth of a blanket coupled with the mobility of a robe, and “sleeved blankets” (Snuggies, Snugglers, Doojos, Toasty Wraps, Slankets) became a cultural phenomenon.

However, it seems like some changes in our society just make it too easy to stray from the old-fashioned traditions of interacting and socializing, and may ultimately create unintended gaps in communication that affect our legal and business systems.

Recently, Facebook — the world’s most visited website — announced what its leaders claim to be the future of modern communication: Facebook Messages. The thought behind Facebook’s messaging system is that all e-mail, chat messages, text messages and Facebook messages can exist in a single mailbox that can be accessed on its service or through an existing e-mail account.

Facebook engineers suggest that the messages are designed to allow its users to exchange messages without any regard to the form of communication.

Unlike traditional e-mail, messages sent and received through this system will not copy, blind copy or even have subject lines accompanying them. Facebook’s leaders believe that those “formalities” are unnecessary in a modern communication system. The main goal is to keep most, if not all, conversations crisp, quick and short.

With the increasing popularity of sites like Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare and Tagged, as well as the near-ubiquitous use of cell phones and other personal data assistants, the expectations attached to our communication have changed dramatically.   There is a great commercial on the air, sponsored by Windows Phone 7. It shows people texting and reading their PDAs while engaged in such activities as running, biking, using the bathroom, playing with their children and more. Eventually, the bottom falls out, and they each reap the consequences of their distractions in a somewhat humorous manner. The point of the commercial is to remind us that our lives are not built around our electronic gadgets, and to point out that human interaction is still important.

While the convenience and immediacy of access provided by the new technology cannot be questioned, over-reliance on them may be harmful in the end. For example, judges now have to add to their jury charges warnings against creating Facebook communities and Tweeting about cases on which their juries sit.

Many businesses are forced to advertise to customers in a different manner, and in some instances change the structures of their core models in order to attract a generation of potential employees who are accustomed to communicating in short messages and initialisms.

I am looking forward to witnessing the ultimate impact of the new Facebook Messaging System, and cautiously optimistic that its rollout will not destroy our desires to interact with each other in more substantive ways. Facebook’s CEO claims that more than 4 billion messages are sent daily from users of his site, and the coordination of various types of methods for exchanging digital messages with Facebook Messages may double that number.

While the upside-down ketchup bottle is a welcomed resource in response to a clear demand, I hope that we can slow our demands for quicker, easier, less interactive communications that may alter the manner in which we develop relationships. During this holiday season, please do not get tempted to text your mother or grandmother your request for a second helping — it is still fashionable to look them in the eyes and ask for more.

Nichole Cohen from Venable assisted with research on Facebook Messages.

Craig A. Thompson, who writes a monthly column for The Daily Record, is a partner at Venable LLP, and represents clients in the areas of commercial litigation, products liability, and personal injury. He is the chair of the firm’s diversity committee. He is also the host of a weekly two-way talk radio show, and the author of a series of children’s books on African-American history. His e-mail address is CAThompson@Venable.com.