Birnholtz, J., Hancock, J., Smith, M., & Reynolds, L. (2012). Understanding unavailability in a world of constant connection. Interactions 19, 32-35.


Modern technologies focus on connecting but do not provide good support for managing unavailability and inattention. To understand this problem, some researchers have conducted a series of studies called butler lies, one common strategy for inattention management. Butler lies are named in reference to the one-time function of a butler in managing his master’s unavailability. The researchers conducted five studies of butler lies using IM, SMS, and BBM. They also interviewed 47 people about their use of butler lies to better understand how these messages are perceived in everyday life and situations. To understand how people use butler lies, they divided them into several categories, based first on their function, to head off a conversation that hasn’t yet started, ending a conversation that is already under way, or explaining unavailability at another time. They found a correspondingly large number of butler lies in SMS related to unavailability for interaction at other times, which was substantially more than in IM.