Editorial: The devices change, but the communication needs stay the same
It’s funny how the new communication methods have displaced the old ones, yet at the same time occupy the same “communication space” in our lives and work. It’s as if we have a certain set of communication needs that can be met a variety of ways, but no addition or subtraction from the set is allowed.
By Patrick Flannery
Here’s what I’m talking about:
A face-to-face visit used to be the default way to communicate with someone. You wouldn’t call or write if you could walk over to their desk or drop by their office. Our cities are built around this assumption – that people have to get together in person in order to do business. Wow, has that changed. I think one of the unexpected long-term consequences of information technology could be the slow melting away of cities, but that’s a topic for another time.
You used a letter when someone was farther away and you had more to say than would take a few minutes, or when you needed there to be a record of what you said. Phone calls were the quick and dirty option for brief, informal communications. You’d never conduct serious business over the phone. Faxes, when they arrived, occupied a sort of limbo between phone calls and letters. They were informal and recorded – suitable for longer material that didn’t need to be secure or presented nicely. It’s amusing today to remember how, in the early years of their novelty, people used faxes much the same way we used email when it was new and now texting or social media. Want to send a funny photo? In 1998 it was a fax. By 2008 it was an email. Now, a text is still a good way to go, but many younger people have moved even from that to Instagram and Snapchat – services purpose-built for this.
Today, a voice phone call now occupies the space of an in-person visit. We frequently make appointments for phone calls, almost apologetically asking to make the call. We’re painfully conscious of the imposition on the other person’s time and attention, and we view incoming calls as invasive disruptions. Think of how hard it is these days to get someone on the phone cold. You almost always end up in voice mail.
Emails did occupy the old space of phone calls for a time, but now that texting and social media messaging have became common they are moving quickly into the role once reserved for letters. Drafting emails and sifting through piles of correspondence is fast becoming an all-consuming chore for which companies will soon start to hire dedicated staff (remember secretaries?). Formal agreements are negotiated and finalized through exchange of email. My teen daughters and people closer in age to them than they are to me often go days without checking personal email. Why? Because if someone needs to communicate with them quickly they know to text or send them a message on Snapchat. These media now occupy the old space of the phone call.
Faxes appear to have been phased right out for everything except very rare circumstances (usually legal correspondence) where the communication has to be both fast and include handwritten signatures. That is, everywhere except the rental and medical industries. It’s one of the unique and adorable things about this business.
Getting a letter is now like getting a telegram used to be: reserved for special occasions where the communication itself is intended to be part of the experience. And face-to-face communication seems to be becoming more valuable as it becomes more rare. I think you get more time and attention in a face-to-face meeting now than you used to. Maybe things are coming full circle…