It will end in tears

I hate the way people communicate at the moment. It is an orgy of self-indulgence, navel-gazing, gossip and muttering…

Cue everyone gulping and staring at Emma as if she has lost the plot

OK, my first sentences may have been strong but I feel lost in this Alice in Wonderland (after the pill – when she was small) world, and I am an expert in communication; I should be able to cut through the noise and find a direction for people, and create protocols that enable conversation without:

  1. wasting anyone’s valuable time, and
  2. pissing anyone off

But I can’t… I am struggling to find the way through. (I am obviously talking about digital media here, Twitter, Facebook, email, Bebo, Pownce, texting ad nauseum – so ignoring completely telephone, snail mail and F2F.)

What we seem to have enthusiastically entered into is an orgy of communication, braying with our own success, or craving the news of others every minute – sometimes second – of the day.

How many of you are eternally thinking up the next natty update? Or fail to relish any precious moment in our eagerness to share it across our personalised digital gob?

As ever, such delicious self-indulgence has a cost, and this cost is what I am currently pondering and trying to find the tools to mitigate… just for fun, of course 🙂

Take for example a story that was related to me by a close friend: A young lady was stepping out, often horizontally, with a fella. After a few dates he promised to call… and never did, prompting the bewildered maiden to call up her mate and declare his death – assuming that there could be no other reason for his sudden and complete silence. (He wasn’t he had just naffed off.)


But, it makes me think. All of our relationships are developed through communication – in person, on the telephone, through stories from friends and family, in texts, IM, Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, &c &c &c

It is a primal instinct to communicate our needs to the person or people we deem most likely to be able to fulfil them, and the Darwinian theory of survival of the fittest dictates that we are programmed to be pretty good at this stuff… so what happens when we are able to SOS our needs to one person or many immediately, through – say – five hyper-efficient mediums (at least). Our expectation is that within seconds we will be satisfied – of course, it is Darwinian, it is the way the world works, right?

Nope, not the digital world, the theory of evolution is completely flummoxed by digital comms – communicating our needs is something that the highly evolved have nutted, very well – and that is good. Responding to the relentless demand for attention that these tools enable requires biological, human input. And that will never, ever compete with the eternal quest for survival that commands us to eternally communicate our needs and only when they are fulfilled, can we properly help others.

See the problem? We are forever SOS-ing, and in an eternal quest for resolution, yet rarely satisfied. Without satisfaction/peace we are not programmed to help anyone else (except superficially).

You see the problem I am picking at here?

I have no solution yet, but it is niggling me enough for me to share it with you and see what you guys have to say 🙂

12 responses

  1. What does the information revolution actually change about this? Is it just the ability for everyone to communicate with more people at the same time, or are there other effects coming into play? For example, the increased acceptability of one-to-many communication via blog, twitter, LJ etc. when previous generations mocked those who sent round-robins once a year.

    Also, have people’s needs increased with their ability to communicate them? That is, are people doomed to permanent dissatisfaction because they have the means to communicate it to more people who may be able to help?

  2. I don’t know… but I do know that the ability to communicate our perceived requirements for survival outweigh our ability to respond to everyone else’s cries for attention using the same media. Does that make sense?

    My head scratching moment is how we can realistically respond to everyone’s pleas for help, demands for attention, witticisms blah blah – because in order to engage and get the help we want when we want, etiquette/survival techniques, demand that we are deemed worthy of interacting in that space i.e. have participated fully.


  3. Is this problem caused simply by the vast array of different digital communications mediums available these days? From my experience people tend to use each medium in a very similar way. My suggestion would be to try and think for which purpose each medium is best suited.

    Heres a four level system I’ve thought of just now.

    Twitter / Group SMS / Group Email – Insignificant, timewasting entertainment
    Flicker / Social Network Sites – Self promotion and above.
    Blog – State opinion and self promotion, but discourage level 1.
    Email / Messengers – Personal messages – Same as snail mail F2F

    Of course, for this system to work each individual within our social network must follow the same rules and self regulate. But, if it were to work we would be able to prioritize and filter the constant stream of communication we recieve we recieve.

    What do you think?

  4. Doug, liking your four tier system of management – and yes it is absolutely necessary to prioritise and compartmentalise. Does it still deal with the constant feeling of not quite being fully satisfied? The eternal SOS-ing… for example the time spent pressing send/receive when you have just sent an important email and expect an immediate response; or checking your phone for texts and all that.

    I think that in order for something to come of this chaos, there needs to be some kind of unspoken etiquette that everyone signs up to – but that won’t happen! It would, however, leave us more free…

  5. Some random thoughts.

    A friend of mine told me yesterday that the only reason she signed up for Facebook was so that she could be assured that her son was still alive during his gap year due to his status updates. There being no way that he would actually send her updates 🙂

    This is like the “heartbeat” system we have in IT to see if a system is still up, it regularly send us a pulse to show that it is still up and running.

    The alternative is “polling” where we actively ask a system “Are you still there?”

    Above and beyond this we have actual requests where we ask a system to do something.

    In our digiworld what we seem to have is an unstructured mess of heartbeats, polls and requests all competing for attention and all coming across different channels and in the meantime, LOOK!, there!, outside the window! there’s a cat on a skateboard…

    Even foxes like me find it wearing 🙂

  6. Does it all come down to the old quantity quality debate? I’m sitting here doing a “conversation audit” for a government client. They of course want to see the quantity, the number of conversations taking place around their issue but as you know I’m trying to move them to look at the quality, the form and content of those conversations. You’re absolutely right that the quantity can be overwhelming. The tsunami of questions, pleas, rhetorical statements and stories – some cast out onto the social web like messages in bottles – can leave one breathless. But when you take a “snapshot”, a slice through that conversation economy you get a different picture. Conversations, stories, questions and “content relationships” become not only easier to handle but more relevant, less intimidating, less related to the technologies and more personal. The problem of course comes in how, on a day-to-day basis, we make a qualitative shift for ourselves. Come the glorious day of the semantic Web, we may have software agents and other whizzy things that help us do this. At the moment where having to do it the old-fashioned, some would say analogue, way. You have done it by radically pruning the number of RSS feeds you read. I have done it by shifting from a destination Blog to joining in conversations as necessary. Others will find other ways. Perhaps the key thing is to ensure that we keep “quality” at the forefront of our minds and work from there. And yes I also mean it in the Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance sense.

  7. Judging by the frequency of postings and status updates by friends on Facebook and LJ, there’s a self-limiting factor that, in the vast majority of cases, people either stop posting or stop responding after a while. Maybe the need to call out for attention is not so great, and the reason you’re being flooded is because your field of work pretty much mandates self-promotion, networking and frequent communication using the latest online widgets and gizmos.

    I really wish people in general were seized with the urge to have their voices heard – I’ve got 800 users on my website and about 2 that actively contribute worth a damn! I’m sure I just need to find the right buttons to press…

  8. I think I have misled you all a bit, I have streamlined my own comms and am able to handle it after stripping away tonnes of digital noise, and I manage peoples’ expectations, so if I am not in a very chatty mood, I warn people 🙂 it was more a look at the general orgy of comms happening ‘out there’ and how it will end in tears as it is spiralling. And looking at communication as a basic tool for human survival, how these over-communication tools are disturbing a natural order… IMNSHO

  9. It’s partly signal to noise and partly more signals, more noise. I fear you are right, the one person who could stop the annihilation of mankind at the paws of the invading killer bears from outer space will be too busy tweeting, poking, blogging, vlogging, commenting, posting, IM’ing, and texting to notice the razor sharp claws at the door.

    Our epitaph will read “Mankind – distracted to death”.

  10. love the Zen and the AoMM comment and will apply 4 levels to my own life. perhaps it is all a frantic search for validity, to put what you have out there in the attempt to stir others. Quality better than quantity and take a firm grip of your ego.

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