Even twenty years ago, it used to be easy to know when you had a message. Your landline phone would ring, or your letterbox would rattle (at some regular time before nine), or your neighbour would yell 'yoohoo' over the garden fence. Easily noticed, hard to miss.
It's not quite so obvious to know when you have a message today. Notifications come far more frequently than before, in a huge variety of forms, creating an electronic clamour where individual threads are increasingly easy to overlook. We may be spoken to more often, but the danger is that we hear less.
Landlines don't ring like they used to, even though they're increasingly reliable and cheap. Everybody's got a mobile now so people prefer to ring that, rather than keeping their fingers crossed you're sitting at home attached to a coiled up cable. Mobile phones are great for communication here there and everywhere, but only if they're actually switched on and audible. Many's the time I've missed a call because I didn't hear the ringtone, or missed the vibration, or simply overlooked the text message arriving unheralded in my pocket. "I called you, you must have noticed, why are you ignoring me?"
Email's a wonderful thing, so long as you spot it. That little envelope which pops up in the corner of your screen, is it there, is it there, is it there... oh, how long's that been there? And that other email account you've got, be it Hotmail or Gmail or whatever, are you certain there isn't a message waiting in another window? Take your eye off your inbox, any inbox, and unseen notifications pile up.
Numerous messaging services proliferate on the web, and you probably participate in several. Instant pop-ups, Facebook pokes, micro-Twitter, internet forums - a multitude of different locations to talk, debate and argue. Generally there's a box to type into, then a pause while you wait to see who (if anyone) will respond. This might take a few seconds, or there might be time to go make a cup of tea, or you might hear nothing back until tomorrow. Do you hang around and wait, do you come back and check every five minutes, or do you leave your return rather longer? Online messaging can be the most inefficient timewasting way to conduct any form of conversation, if you allow it.
Has your favourite blog updated recently? You could go check, or you could scrutinise the RSS feed, or you might take the lazy way out and wait for a tweet saying there's a new post instead. There are so many ways to find out, but most require you to look rather than being told. Are you sure there isn't something new out there to read? Did you miss the beep, or the ping, or the flash, or whatever? Better refresh the page, just in case, and maybe then refresh it again for good measure.
We communicate in so many different media, in so many different locations, that's it's getting ever harder to keep in touch. Notifications stream thick and fast, competing for our attention, sometimes in plain view, sometimes out of sight. Give it another ten years and there'll be so much information flooding our way that we'll need to filter out 99% or drown. Don't get left out of the conversation, but don't let keeping up drag you under.
(Hasn't he written anything new yet?) <f5> (not yet, try again later)