The Future of Electronic Communication is also the Past


An interesting discussion has been taking place on the SourcePOV blog (hosted by Chris Jones) this week on the importance of communication — specifically the need for clarity and the methods that can promote it — and the trouble that ambiguity brings in a digital world. The debate, critique and insight from the many participants (myself included) has been a breath of fresh intellectual air this chilly week, not only because of the level of thought put into the discussion, but because the dialogue is challenging our collective assumptions about language in the present day digital era. Alas, we haven’t solved the problems of language and clarity in the information landscape, but we have posed some interesting questions.

One of the challenges that has come up is improving clarity in communications given the changing nature of the tools we use and the contexts in which we apply them. I’m not going to re-hash the debate here, rather I’d encourage you to join in at the source (no pun intended!) and add to the rich conversation going on there. What I am interested with this post is building on those ideas and offering some new ones on the future of communication. A few weeks ago I posted a highly unscientific, partly tongue-in-cheek poll to confirm or challenge something I was seeing in my personal communications, which was a shift from Facebook to Twitter and blogs in the number and nature of messages being shared. Facebook seemed to be getting quieter and Twitter and my blog-roll were heating up with messages and I wanted to know whether this was something unique to me and my network or something broader.

A few brave readers responded with 63 per cent (N=5) saying that Twitter and blog traffic is going up, while 1 participant felt there was no change and 2 voted for ‘other’. Unfortunately, no one commented and suggested to me what ‘other’ meant, as I’d hoped. Lesson: don’t expect much from half-serious polls.

Perhaps another lesson is that our electronic communications and online social networks are beginning to change. A look at the traffic for both sites over the past year shows that there was a big gain in March and April and a steady move upward or level since then. But what I see, and cannot be gained from these numbers, is a shift in the sophistication and quality of the content that I’m seeing on Twitter and my favourite blogs versus what is on Facebook. I would argue that 80 per cent or more of the very best content that I get on a daily basis can be traced back to my Google Reader and Twitter feeds.

It is not from academic journals or books or from formal presentations, rather it is content in the form of narrative fragments, little bits of information linked together, either unorganized or disorganized, and often free of any larger narrative beyond a general area of interest. Critics (too many to list here) suggest that this is a threat to literacy, a juvenile form of communicating, and out of sync with the way humans naturally communicate, which is based on stories with a beginning, middle and end.

While I agree that we are storytelling beings, I’d challenge the suggestion that stories (at least complete ones) are natural, while others suggesting that the electronic world of narrative fragments might very well be taking storytelling to a new level. The idea of ‘natural’ complete stories is a myth. When was the last time you sat down and told a complete story to someone (other than reading a bedtime story to a child) that could be reasonably understood and interpreted by someone other than the person you were communicating to? (In other words, you could take a transcript and show it to someone out of context and they would know what you’re talking about? No insider knowledge would be necessary, no shared history, no temporal or physical connection present). Probably not very often. The truth is that we communicate in fragments all the time. Twitter posts and Facebook updates work because the fragments we use have some other shared contexts with the audiences — intended or otherwise. These contexts shift and change and tools like Twitter, or text messages or other media provide a concise way to adapt quickly to rapidly changing contexts. This is why I think Twitter and blogs more generally are becoming the more powerful tool set for communicating and why I am seeing a change in my communication patterns.

In the days of Dickens people’s lives were far less complex than they were today. A person would communicate with a few dozen others at best and assume a few social roles. Today, we communicate with potentially thousands in many roles because of our vast networks and global reach through technologies. Yet the stories we tell are still done in fragments most of the time and require context to fully appreciate. So while our future of communication will require tools that enable us to communicate quickly in a variety of contexts to a broad audience, the importance of context will become as important as in Dickens time. A tool that allows us the ability to attract the right people (that is develop a shared context) and allow us to adapt it to the changes in context will be the one that fits with our natural communications and more likely to thrive. So the future will indeed be the past. Fire up the Delorean!

Join the discussion at the SourcePOV blog or here and in keeping with Dickens may I wish you all a Merry Christmas for those celebrating it and a happy holiday and insightful 2010 to all.


1 thought on “The Future of Electronic Communication is also the Past”

  1. Cameron –

    Thanks for your kind words and encouragement of our semantic debate.

    While my original premise was the importance of semantic clarity in the communication of collaborators, the value of diverse meanings (aka “ambiguity”) to innovators and creative types triggered, as you said, an interesting debate. As I learn more about complexity, I’m tempted to conclude the answer is not at either extreme, but rather, someplace in the middle. Convergent discussion brings clarity, focus and consensus. Divergent thinking brings creative emergence: options, possibilities. I can’t imagine advocating for one and not the other. Increasingly, it depends. When collaborating, you need to be able to do both.

    As you say above, it truly comes down to “adapting quickly to rapidly changing contexts”. This is the magic and the challenge of our fast-paced world. The world of Dickens was simple and predictable. Choices were limited. Now? No more. Yet its amazing how often people cling to 19th century mindset.

    Elsewhere I’ve defined knowledge as “information in context”. I don’t know if that resonates for you, but if it’s true at all, it points up the increasing need for understanding context, setting it, and trying to hold it. At least for the life of a 140c tweet. Blogs have a bit more room to maneuver. But not much ..

    I think this also sheds light on your Facebook observation. I find that FB has mainly a social context, driven by its prevalent “wall” metaphor and a general difficulty in creating critical mass of ideas.

    Blogs have the ability to create a consistent context (though not all do).

    But Twitter may be the ultimate context setting engine: content fragment X (a link to a blog) has relevance Y (hashtag). Lists are starting to bring the same context setting capability to people. So now we can tag SME’s. Wow. Where else besides Twitter can you index emergent insights on the fly?

    Do you think blogs & Twitter are the next platform for collaborative emergence?

    Either way, I think we’re onto an important set of trends. To make all this work, we need to get better at quickly identifying, understanding, and changing context.

    With a hat tip to Dickens and a heartfelt Merry Christmas .. can I borrow the keys to the Delorean?

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