The Death of BRB?

I’m not sure if the kids today say BRB when they’re texting or otherwise chatting with each other. My guess is, probably not, although, I have heard people literally say it out loud during an in-person conversation. This says a lot about where technology has taken us.

Recently, I was sitting at my computer in my home office, Slack chatting with my partner, Joey. We were in the middle of a lively conversation and as I stood up to go grab a cup of coffee downstairs, I reflexively sent him a brb; I’m a child of the AOL Instant Messenger days. I had scarcely made it downstairs before my phone was out of my pocket and in my hand. By the time I was pushing the button on my coffee grinder, I was already back in the thick of our conversation, from my phone. Opening Slack, I felt silly looking at my brb message from not even two minutes prior. It really was completely pointless.

It would seem that brb is a relic of a time long passed (relative to today’s pace of technology); a time when you could only chat with someone while you were sitting at your heavy, humming desktop computer, perhaps in your computer-room. Pondering this, images of 1950’s homes with housewives anchored to the kitchen wall via corded phone came to mind. Today, there is seamless continuity of communication. We shift from desktop to cellphone to laptop to iPad without skipping a beat, our partners in conversation generally completely unaware. In fact it actually gives me a little bit of satisfaction when conducting a rapid-fire email conversation with someone and seeing their email signature shift from full to mobile or vice-versa. Ah-hah! I’ve caught a glimpse into the actual physical reality of the human person behind the words.

In this actual reality, we are all bound by physical circumstances, no matter how digitally we communicate. We are physical beings. One has to wonder, is it really OK to swim through this constant digital communication stream with our physical surroundings existing largely in the unconscious periphery? We may have to postpone a couple messages with our colleagues to find out, but what might we be missing in the real world around us?

We are all well accustomed to the constant pull of push notifications, and with the growing utilization of Facebook Messenger advertising, this continuity of communication is finding greater depth in marketing as well.

It all begs the question, should we as humans and as marketers simply go with the flow, and allow our old friend BRB to pass away quietly; or should we build a little sanctuary for this endangered species in our lives? How might we balance this with the necessities of the evolving competitive digital landscape?

Traditionally this question has been addressed with choice — specifically, the choice to opt-in and the choice to opt-out. It is the communication recipient’s choice to receive marketing messages or to stop them. Hence, famed marketer, Seth Godin’s, emphasis on permission marketing; offering something of value to a prospective customer in exchange for the permission to communicate with them about your products or services. While this sounds lovely, and is certainly far better than just blasting emails to people who didn’t ask for it, today it takes the shape of huge popup overlays that interrupt you on every website you enter or try to exit. You might not leave feeling like you’ve been mugged, but there sure is some aggressive panhandling going on out there. Yet, I’ve entered my email into many of those, and gotten value from some of them. I’ve also unsubscribed from hundreds of lists over the years.

So, perhaps choice is enough. Yet, we all know that our inboxes are full of emails that aren’t quite spam, but aren’t quite wanted, and we can’t seem to get a handle on it. Is your Facebook account starting to feel similar? We marketers know that you’ve always got your phone on you or a screen in front of you. Just as when you’re chatting with a colleague, they can pretty well assume continuity of that conversation. This can make an interaction feel less like a conversation and more like a demand. We all know that feeling, right? There’s not really any technological reason for BRB. If someone truly, physically needs to pause a conversation, there may as well be a reptilian monster attacking their city from which they need to escape before resuming their chat and even then there would most certainly be a live video.

Which brings us to the irony of BRB, a phrase that started in the digital text chat world when conversations were tied to a physically fixed object, and became representative of the generation that coined it and sometimes mocked by those who thought it silly to sit in front of a glowing box typing to one another instead of just speaking. This phrase now has come full circle and only has true relevancy in a physical conversation where one person actually needs to walk away from the conversation. Pardon my geekery but it’s much like the idea that a Jedi warrior has such mastery of the nuances of the force around him that projectile weapons are easily averted and the only true threat, even in their uber-advanced technological age, is the immediacy of a swordfight.

With Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods, it’s never been more obvious that the value of real, physical (or as close an approximation to it as possible) conversations cannot be undervalued. Even when you’re conducting a digital, perhaps even automated, conversation with your customers, consider if it would behoove you to treat it as close to a physical conversation as possible. Remember what BRB used to mean in customer relationships? When you needed a shoe size that wasn’t on display and the customer service rep said, I’ll be right back, he was going into the back to find your size. When I ask my Whole Foods butcher for a pound of ground sirloin, and he says, Sure, I’ll be right back, I feel good knowing that he is selecting the best available cut and preparing it for me. Might you want to bring some BRB back into your customer relationships?

I’d love to hear how you are managing the immediacy of today’s communications both in your personal life and your marketing. Until next time, I’ll BRB.

John Natoli, Found
and the whole Do Good Design Co. team