Communication. It’s something simple to understand. There is a message, a sender of the message and a receiver of the message. If the receiver receives the message the sender sends, that is a communication. Communication is nothing more than the act of sending and recieving the message. Nothing more, nothing less?
Well, let’s take some examples. I am sending you a message:
2380 jsdaop oj sdoppojsd ppjpodsj.
You just received the message (we hope). Is that communication? I certainly doubt you feel it is. To you and me it’s a garbage string, has no meaning. We’ve gone through the act of communicating (in a sense), but we have not communicated.
Let’s take another:
Ad praesens ova cras pullis sunt melior
More than likely you do not speak Latin. So to you, I have not communicated very well. You can hypothesize from the grammar and word combinations that it is a “true” communication of some kind, but in a language you don’t understand. If you spoke Latin, you’d know that the phrase I just wrote is “Eggs today are better than chickens tomorrow.” And if I thought you knew Latin, then that would be all the message I did send. But since you don’t speak Latin, you may feel I’m showing off and the message you received was “I’m superior to you because I can speak an ancient language and you cannot.” (I certainly hope you don’t feel that – as I don’t really speak Latin, I used the Web). But I didn’t even vaguely send a message like that – so where did the message you received come from?
In this case, the message you “received” was an emergent property of the context of the communication. The context was the medium of the communication, the situation in which it was sent, and the psychology of the receiver (what I like to call the “communication veil”). I didn’t send anything vaguely resembling your message, but as my message moved through the communication veil, a substitution occurred in which a new message was created because you didn’t understand the original message, which I assumed you did, and you were therefore able to insert a new message into the “hole” that existed. You knew I was trying to communicate something, but didn’t know what. You also assumed I knew you didn’t know Latin. Through your veil, I was therefore purposely being abstruse. So you “filled in the gap” as it were with your best guess of what my implied message was. Unfortunately for me, your best guess was not what I intended.
It often amazes me given all the communication veils, the unpredictable situations we experience daily, and our mediums that are both noisy and odd at times, that sender and receiver come even close to having a true meeting of the minds.
So we now have a new medium – a social medium. It can be written, photographic, audio only, or video and audio. When it is written, it is between 140 characters (Twitter and SMS) and 450 characters (Facebook), with many sites/services limited to the 250 character level. Photos usually extend to 4 or 5 in a short space (with the ability to click to a larger page) and audio/video have minimal limits (unless the site, like 12seconds, limits length).
Written communication in 140 characters? What kind of communication is this? Let’s look at some examples from Twitter:
The first is an ad – and may I add (no pun intended) that we are seeing Twitter become overwhelmed with advertisements now. From my perspective, it is getting to the point where I cannot maintain any kind of “conversation” (back to that term shortly) flow with all the noise. If something doesn’t happen to limit this, Twitter is quickly going to find itself obsoleted.
The second is a personal note. The third is a share about something of interest to the sender. The fourth and fifth are an information request I made about whether others were noticing trouble with Twitter and one person’s response
What can we say about these messages and communications in this medium?
The first three messages do not seem to request a response. They appear to be monologues. Are they? Depends on the context of the receiver. But what is unique about social media is just that fact: it makes no distinction from the sender’s or receivers’ (not the plural) perspective. Unless I do a direct message, I don’t necessarily expect or require a response. I don’t even know who is listening, and I don’t care. It’s as if I were in a cafe with hundreds of people all talking – some to themselves, and some to others – and I’m shouting a message that I hope, but can’t know, that anyone will really hear.
The receiver’s pespective is similar but opposite. I’m listening for specific messages among the noise. I can tell when someone is talking to me (or even about me) because there are visual or other clues (e.g. the @sign) that allow the volume of those messages to raise above the din. But there may be other interesting things these monologers are saying, so I can’t ignore the noise totally. What I can do is filter the voices of only those I think I might care to hear. This reduces the signal to noise ratio substantially, but doesn’t remove it altogether. It may cause me to miss other messages of interest, as well.
As a receiver, I can chose to send a message back, but it is not required or expected. That is very different from previous conversational media: when a message was sent, a response was expected. So, if there is a message sent and you can’t know if anyone hears it, are we really engaging in communication? To a certain extent, this is the online version of a message in a bottle – only the ocean is filled with thousands of bottles. Not only can I not know if someone will receive my message (even my followers), but with thousands of other messages out there, they may not be able to find it, even if they are looking for it. Certainly as a sender I am trying to communicate, but on the surface it would appear an awfully inefficient and ineffective mechanism. We’ll come back to this.
So what are the purposes of these communications? Why send a message someone may receive but I can’t be sure and I can’t truly identify who will be the receiver? We’ll also come back to that in a moment.
On the other hand, the fourth message requests a response – so it is a more traditional form of communication. Its purpose is to get a broader perspective on an issue important to me. I’m trying to confirm a fact or a situation and determine whether it is specific to me (a personal problem that I must take action to solve) or whether it impacts the whole community (in which case, others may be acting to solve the problem). It is also probably a timely issue, otherwise I would not necessarily send it via social media. I say probably because that isn’t necessarily true. Communication is about habits. If I am in the habit of communicating mainly through social media, I may chose that as my medium, even though it may not be the most efficient.
The fifth message is a directed response to me. It is very likely I will receive it, but not guaranteed (if I am away from my desk or phone). But it is also sent to everyone listening, so the intent has to be to engage a broader group in the conversation. So in that regard, it has the same basic properties as the first four messages.
What about the content of these communications? Certainly, they are not rambly blogs on deep subjects that no one will ever read…. (I have no self-delusions on that subject). They cannot and do not contain Ideas – even Matt Cutt’s entry doesn’t contain an Idea – it contains a pointer to something that to him contains an important Idea. But isn’t Danny Sullivan’t comment about the Karate Kid an Idea? Isn’t it expressing something unique? The answer is it expresses a unique opinion, but it does not contain a new Idea – it is instead commenting on the validity of Ideas expressed in a longer and denser medium.
You cannot express substantive thoughts – big Ideas – in 140 characters, and probably not in 450 characters. And I am the first to say – and please hear me because I don’t want anyone thinking this is some kind of elitist claptrap – that most communication is NOT about big Ideas – otherwise we wouldn’t identify specialized subsets of humanity as visionaries, philosophers, or gurus. The point is social media is not a vehicle, nor is it expected to be a vehicle for conceiving, developing, or communicating Ideas with a capital I.
So what about stories? Storytelling is deeply ingrained and fundamental to human communication. In fact, I would argue that most everything we try to communicate is done in the form of a story. I used to love to say that as our ancestors used to sit around the campfire at night and listen to the shaman tell a story about the Gods, today we sit around the projector in a dark room listening to shamans tell us about the Gods of profit and technical wizardry.
So does social media contain stories?
We’ll leave that to tomorrow’s entry.
Tweet verus est rara avis – A true Tweet is a rare bird
(OK, NOW I’m showing off)