The medium, the message, the encode and the decode

I can get rather persnickety about words. I am hyper-aware about the words I use, and I can’t help but pay attention to the words I hear (or read! because we type and text more than we speak these days) because words represent one of the key ways in which we communicate.

Especially now – we live in a word-driven world, more and more, and the implications are worth considering.  

Let’s “walk and talk”
There are four types of communication between people:

  1. Verbal (spoken)
  2. Non-verbal (body language)
  3. Written (letters, e-mails, essays, memos, etc.
  4. Visual (pictures or video)

These forms of communication, however, can happen all at once: it’s not always in isolation.

For example, you run into an old friend on the street who says: “It’s great to see you, Bob, what’s going on?” and verbally that may seem like an opportunity for a quick catch-up. However, as you talk, you notice he’s looking at his watch, perhaps checking his phone surreptitiously (at least he thinks so), and that starts to make you a little uneasy.

The uneasiness comes from a discrepancy between the two “messages”, one verbal and one non-verbal, that you’re receiving and you can’t help but wonder, either consciously or subconsciously, which is the right one to listen to.

More than likely, he really does want to catch up with you, but he does have somewhere to be and he’s not quite sure how to extract himself from the conversation. (Or maybe he doesn’t and still doesn’t know how to politely cut and run, that’s fine).

On the flip side, imagine he had given you his full attention: eye contact, perhaps a hand on the shoulder, full-body laughter as you told an amusing story that he’d missed out on being there for – how would that have made you feel? Even if you didn’t notice it: a) probably pretty good and b) connected.

You see, we communicate because we want to connect to other people and, as I’ve read once, perhaps one of the chief purposes in life is to connect with other people.

But, we now live in a world where we’re not seeing balanced communication – and by balanced I mean multiple forms either at once or in a rotating fashion) and that’s because we’re emphasizing certain forms like the written word (i.e. Twitter, Facebook, SMS) and visual (i.e. Snapchat, Instagram) over verbal (phone calls) or joint verbal/non-verbal (in-person) and visual/non-verbal (videoconferencing, Skype) is still limited or not preferred.

Why this matters
Google “texting versus talking” and you’ll find a number of alarmist articles postulating that the uptick in texting is leading to “the lost art of conversation” and it’s causing “social anxiety and loneliness”, etc., etc., down with civilization.

They are both right and wrong.

Right: For a generation “growing up digital”, as I like to call it, I think they’re not getting enough practice time with all the forms of communication. They are capable of utilizing all forms of communication – they’re human, I assume – but do they have a preference that allows for them to self-edit, to self-curate, to avoid difficult conversations, to minimize conflict, and to present a ‘perfection’ that doesn’t exist? Of course they do!

[Let’s not pretend that during our teenager years, if we could have, we would have.]

Wrong: Teenagers do grow up and eventually, one would hope, they grow out of it. For adults who have jumped on this bandwagon, I think you have two types: a) true believers that reliance on disconnected, self-curated, perfectionistic-enhancing, and limited forms of communication are superior, and b) it’s fun, it’s even addictive (both the activities and the control), but ultimately it’s just another tool to use in the toolbox. I fear the former and I believe I’m the latter.

Right: It’s not so much the “lost art of conversation” that is at risk, but I do think our vocabulary has narrowed. I cringe when I see the five characters: tl;dr – not everything can be compressed into bullet points, not everything can be conveyed in a clever, well-done infographic, the world does not fit onto an oyster. This is my emphasis on “words matter” because the words we use say something about us and they also talk about our relationship to others and the world at large. Louis C.K. explained this in the best way possible (note: NSFW). The buzzword, advertising-driven digital hegemony is flattening the scope of our human experience and we need to fight back.

Wrong: Because this conversation is happening, and in fact, two years ago it was just a rumble and now it’s a roar. Yes, the tone remains alarmist – our world is our world, that won’t change overnight, nor will “if it bleeds, it leads” or “make sure it keeps your reader up at night” – but we are talking about texting, social media, collaboration, communication forms and channels, and the social good that needs to be factored in. We are talking about it and people are building tools to leverage our digitality to reinvigorate communication, to build communities, and to bring us together. I love the idea of collaboration software that joins short messages, portals, marketplaces, classified ads, bulletin boards, emails, whiteboards, video, and pictures – we can’t touch through screens, but we can see it (hopefully not on a lag) when someone winces at a word, we can have these rich, whole experiences that for a little while were just out of reach.

Keep talking
On Medium, I was probably a bit too excitable about my fixation on words (see Wunderkammern and then Part 2), but that’s okay. I want that excitement to bleed through the screen, if it’s possible. I want to keep this conversation going.

I want to talk about with folks, and share with folks, the following things (not limited):

  • The right time and place for acronyms and abbreviations
  • Texting versus talking versus emails versus written letters
  • Re-defining/re-invigorating “flattened words”
  • Also, how do words get “flattened”? What are flat words?
  • Does video replace in-person interactions? Can it?
  • Immersive digital communications – how do we achieve it?
  • The number of hours we work versus how we now communicate – correlation or causation (chicken or egg)? Are they related? (I think so)

I believe that the shapes of our world are in flux, but humanity, at the core, hasn’t changed. This is the medium, the message, this is the encode and the decode. We need to learn what the new interaction models for how we communicate and connect work.

What do you want to add to this? What are your thoughts on this? Add your voice to the conversation.

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