Tools controlling communication

July 15, 2009

As a continuation of looking at the internet era through the lens provided by Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, I’ll start with email – what Jeremiah Owyang called the “first and largest social network“.  If television is amusing us to death, email is either boring us to death or burying us alive.  At first, email was an extension of letters and office memos, but as the technology allowed connectivity to the entire world, most office workers find themselves sorting, filing, responding to and deleting emails.  Some of the problems with email:

  1. It becomes the primary method of communication when more personable (phone call or in person) or less obtrusive (IM, wiki) options might be more appropriate
  2. Expectations of how fast email should be responded to vary greatly.  Many treat all email as Urgent & Important (see my discussion of where Twitter falls on Covey’s 4 quadrants).  In the mid-90’s when it could sometimes hours (or “next day”) for email to get from one company to another, now some people feel obligated to answer in minutes.  Email is not geared well for real-time communication, nor is a worker efficient if they have to pounce every time new mail is arriving.
  3. Workers can become inundated with the volume of messages received since they are often subscribed to too many lists, or are in the middle of too many conversations (GMail’s interface provides threading, but Outlook handles threads very poorly – sort by subject and hope you can follow what is going on).

As Neil Postman said, the tool tends to shape the communication, and email use can go even further by having workers spending their days doing nothing but sending and receiving emails.  Now I’m no suggesting that we should get rid of email (nor would I claim that  email is dead or even that you should take a day a week away from email), rather like PowerPoint, it should be used when necessary and with consideration to the intent and audience.  The challenge today is that no single tool is best for all communications.  Hutch Carpenter wrote a nice article describing how Google Wave gives a “Beautiful Potential, Faraway Dream”; until the dream is realized, you can either stick to using email or try and leverage a number of tools.  I use a mix of email, instant messenger, Twitter, Facebook, FriendFeed, wikis, and blogs/RSS (not to mention phone, videoconferencing and when ever possible IRL).  Most people aren’t going to want to learn or toggle between so many tools, but if you can efficiently add just a couple of options, you can take control of the communication rather than the being constrained by the tools.

When all you have is a hammer…

Do you see the email issue getting better?  Will we just need to wait until the large enterprise tools have this functionality built in?

Amusing Ourselves to Death

July 13, 2009

One of my favorite things about social media are the little things like finding new music or a good book recommendation.  The following Twitter post from Andrew McAfee last month caught my eye:

“Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.” – N. Postman

I had just reread Huxley’s Brave New World, and the quote struck a cord with me.  I did a quick search and found that the quote came from Neil Postman’s book Amusing Ourselves to Death. I bought it and found it to be a fascinating read.  The first half of the book examines some of the history of communication.  In social media spaces, there is an ongoing discussion that the communication content is much more important that the technology (but there is a lot of discussion about the various tools and the appropriate use of the tools).  Postman writes that while the message is an important piece, it is impossible to not have the message effected by the medium through which it is transmitted.

The book is primarily a criticism of television and in the introduction, Neil’s son reflects on how his father may have considered the technology changes that have come in the two decades since the book’s publication in the mid-80’s.  Many of the basic questions about the utility of technology hold true throughout the ages.  He quotes Henry David Thoreau on the building of telegraph lines:

“”We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate…We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the old world some weeks nearer to the new; but  perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad flapping American ear will be that Princess Adelaide has the whooping couch.”

The same concerns held for television and many have made similar attacks against Twitter and other web tools.  I plan to take a couple of posts to look at the internet age as an extension of Postman discourse on the Television Age.  As Nicholas Carr wrote, in the age of Google, many have trouble focusing (and I would add that most don’t find the time) on anything more than a paragraph, so I’ll try to keep the posts short. While Web 1.0 is an extension of books, radio and television (1-way communication), Web 2.o is a continuation of the telegraph, telephone and email (2-way communication).