Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Changing Nature of Communication

You can tell we're in the midst of a shift that doesn't yet really know where it's going. The below-30 crowd almost exclusively communicates very publicly with one another using Facebook and MySpace while at the same time somehow expecting more privacy than such openness would suggest. The over-30 crowd, having mostly come to terms with the usefulness of email, is starting to venture into social networking a bit late into the game. They're not quite certain of its relevance in their own lives and more wary of the additional exposure.

While these things shake themselves out, I keep coming back to thinking about how what we say is impacted by how we communicate.

Over the years, I've given a fair amount of thought to that. There was a time in my life when the idea of a graduate degree - just to have done the work to get one, not for any particular use for the degree itself - was appealing to me. As my mind wandered down that potential path, I pondered over what sort of research I'd want to do. The question that interested me the most was "How does the method of communicating impact the nature and effectiveness of communication?" - or something like that anyway. I'm sure a good advisor and mentor would have helped me refine the question into something better if I'd ever gone down that path in reality.

Context is helpful here. When this question first came up for me, I was a college student at a time when only scientists, military, and government had ready access to the internet as a general group. College students, if they had access to the computing labs did too, but that capability was generally limited to those of us in engineering or computer sciences in the earlier days.

This also pre-dated today's ubiquitous cell phones, and flat-rate long distance plans and inexpensive calling cards were also still well out in the future.

So, the communication landscape of the day consisted primarily of letters and post-cards. If you had money and it was worth the expense, you might call long distance on the telephone occasionally but it was something a starving college student thought about before doing... and even then, we tended to count on parents with enough money to reverse the charges and kept the calls fairly short out of necessity.

In mass communication, the notion of satellite transmissions making a broader range of television programming available to more people was just catching on for real, finally becoming more of an expectation than a novelty or luxury. The 24-hour news machine that burst onto the scene in the form of CNN coverage of the transition from Desert Shield to Desert Storm was still in our future. We were just getting cozy with the joke of "50 channels and nothing to watch."

These days, it's more like eight hundred and fifty. And still nothing to watch.

When I think of the fact that being limited to these forms of communication is entirely foreign to my 11-yr-old and as good as that to the 23-yr-old in my family for all he remembers of life before the digital divide opened up into a chasm, it boggles my mind.

Pen pals were fun to have but the time it took for letters to transit state lines took special care and nurturing to keep the relationships going. Overseas pen pals were even more cool but further complicated by the typical two week lag (one-way!) and the space restrictions that accompanied the use of the "aerogramme" letters. Still - if you ever received one, that characteristic lightweight - nearly flimsy - blue paper held such an exotic quality that it made one think of faraway places and the other cultures found there.

The real-time chattiness of phone calls was reserved for cross-town family and school friends. Cross-country calls were rare for "regular folks" and were usually placed only if there arose some urgent need - such as to communicate a death or some grave illness. I don't recall much overseas calling at all - telegrams were still the more common method for communicating urgent messages and paying by the word meant everyone kept telegrams brief.

Having grown up as a world traveler at a time when such a life made me and my lifestyle exotic, the global nature of relationships made possible by the Internet felt like coming home. I felt at more at ease with BitNet communications than any other form I'd experienced previously. I temporarily lost any sense of urgency with regard to ham radio and fully embraced the beginning of the digital age.

And this is when I began to notice that just as email was different from snail mail (though I doubt we'd really started calling it that yet - more likely it was just 'real' mail) and phone conversations, it was becoming clear that email was also different from group internet relay chat, which was also different from the person-to-person BitNet messages, with their 80-character limitations.

Have something quick to say with the expectation of a real-time response... send a BitNet message. If you want to say more, save it for an email. These days, text messaging is similar to that earlier counterpart, but more prevalent because we all have cell phones and so with an even greater expectation of immediate responses.

The more public, group orientation of Facebook adds yet another dimension to communications while Twitter is particularly well-suited for announcements made just in case anyone out there cares. In fact it doesn't seem a lot different from times when Small Person (along with others I've known) announces to no one in particular that he's heading to the bathroom. Good thing he's far less technical than I am at this point. Maybe he won't feel inclined to be mad at me by the time he realizes I've invaded his privacy in such a public way.

The question of privacy in an online life is a tricky one. I don't pretend to understand how we'll come to terms with that one. The best I can guess at this point is that we may adopt some digital version of the traditional Japanese sense of privacy. In a world where many walls were nothing more than shoji screens, made with translucent paper, Japanese created privacy where there was none by politely pretending not to notice anything that couldn't be seen directly. Such sensibilities have even spilled over into forced face-to-face environments such as trains where crowds are necessarily able to see and hear things they might prefer not to witness.

Already I have friends online with whom I'm likely to pretend when together in person that we don't know as much about each other's private lives as we do. We're open and honest with one another and I believe that's admirable - it just shouldn't come back to cause problems or embarrassment later.

Until we figure it out, I think of my online presence in much the same way as I think of keeping teeth brushed and hair combed. Good personal hygiene is good practice anyway - and really important to make sure it's done before leaving the house. Similarly, I still advocate being ourselves - our best selves - online. Being our best selves means that we don't have to worry about whether parents and bosses are watching - which they probably are these days, along with a lot of other folks. .

It's an interesting conversation to have - what we have to say to one another, how we say it and what sort of expectations we have (and can have) around privacy - and whether that's the same as anonymity. I definitely encourage you to comment and get the discussion going. The more publicly we hold the conversation, the more robust it will be.

What do you have to say, and to whom?