Saturday, June 30, 2012

A Little Less Conversation: Technological Determinism in the Age of Digital Text-Based Communication

I'm happy to welcome a brilliant guest blogger today, Natalie Schreiber.  What I love about Natalie's writing is that she makes various points and then allows the reader to come up with their own conclusion.  I think this piece is thought provoking and covers a topic we can all relate to.  The take-home lesson will be whatever you make it.
"The medium is the message."
- Marshall McLuhan, Communication Theorist & Big Daddy of Communication Studies

Technological Determinism

Technological determinism is a reductionist theory that presumes that a society's technology drives the development of its social structure and cultural values.  It's quite easy to see how our social structures are being shaped by the technology that we use to communicate with one another, for example the ways in which advertising changed with the introduction of the internet.  Our world has rapidly changed in a very short period of time.  We now have so many options to use to communicate with people, and many of these methods are text-based.

The Medium is the Message

We have phone calls, text messages, email, online chat, Facebook, and other social media platforms, each providing us with a different way of expressing information.  We may select one form of communication over another for a variety of reasons.  It could be because of a perceived social benefit or a kind of protection that the medium gives us, for example choosing to send someone a text message instead of calling them; perhaps this would be a way to avoid what you fear may be an awkward exchange, or maybe you think you just don't know them well enough to call them.  Maybe a phone call is too personal for you, you don't want to actually hear their voice or have them hear yours.  Or maybe it's purely practical: your message is just short enough that it fits neatly into a text message and you feel that a phone call would be unnecessary or just not suited to whatever it is you need to say.  No matter what the reason is behind the choice of medium, it can't be denied that the medium largely influences the message.

Social Changes

With text-based communication being so prevalent in 2012, I decided to reflect on how this has changed our social world and how we relate to others.  In the past 10-15 years, since the rise of mobile phones and the internet, most people do the majority of their communicating using digital text-based mediums such as text messages, online chats and Facebook.  I feel that this has led to a sense of impersonality as far as how we relate to each other and see each other as people.  The following is a summary of some ways in which I've noticed our communication has changed, both in style and content, with the rise of the digital age and relatively new mediums like text messages and online chats.  Of course, these things don't apply to every single individual across the board, but they are general trends which I've noticed in my social interactions throughout the years.  You decide for yourself whether these things are beneficial to having a rich and full social life or if they are detrimental to maintaining authentic relationships with others.

1. "Hello" and "Goodbye" conversation markers are now optional.  These days, text-based conversations are apparently considered so casual that often neither the beginning nor the end of the exchange requires acknowledgement.  In earlier times, when people would communicate mostly by speaking to one another either on the phone or in person, you'd have to use these kinds of social "book-ends" to mark the beginning and end of an interaction with someone.  Old-fashioned letters (yes, using paper) would also have a beginning and ending point.  When interacting in person, one could get away with casually strolling up to someone and speaking to them without a definitive introductory phrase, however this is assuming that the visual approach and possibly any kind of physical gestures (ex. waving) would take the place of such an utterance.  Obviously, phone conversations require a spoken introduction or you wouldn't know who was on the line.  In person and on the phone, it is considered rude to leave the conversation without acknowledging the end of the interaction in some form.  I bet most of you would feel at least somewhat shunned if you were talking to someone on the phone and suddenly the person hung up without a warning, or you'd be likely to assume that the line was disconnected due to technical problems and that the disconnection was not actually intentional.  There's a basic etiquette with phone conversations that we've lost when it comes to interacting through text-based methods.  For the most part, people simply start talking when they want to express something and the conversation ends when neither person can think of anything else to say, so they stop conversing.

2.  We say things we don't mean/that are not representative of our real emotive state.  "Lol" and "haha" come to mind, as they are two of the most obvious examples of responses that are supposedly representative of an emotional reaction.  "Lol" has become a broad catch-all response to just about anything someone says, even when you're not really moved by whatever it was (how many times are you actually laughing out loud when you use this acronym?).  It's kind of like holding up the "Applause" sign in a television studio during a live filming to get the audience to clap.  It's not a real response indicative of how you feel.  Similarly, we have things like "aww" to represent sympathy (do you really care?) and "cool" for just about anything anyone says to you (is it actually cool?).  What do these things mean?  And how are you really feeling?  There is a real lack of creativity with the dialogue we seem to gravitate toward for the most part.  This could just be sheer laziness, or if the conversation is not valued very highly by its participants, they aren't likely to put effort into keeping it interesting.

3.  Conversations are an aside to whatever else we are doing at the time.  In this day and age, it's not really enough just to have a conversation with someone when you're chatting online or texting them.  There is always something else going on.  As such, we are used to multitasking while we are conversing, are we can be easily distracted by other things between messages.  We can even abandon conversations completely without warning if something more interesting is going on that pulls us away from our phone or computer.  This behavior is understood as normal, acceptable, and forgivable.  Inherent in text-based communication (perhaps with the exception of email) is the assumption that the person we are communicating with is doing something else while the conversation is going on.  They never have our full attention, and we never have theirs.

4. Conversations are fragmented.  With Facebook, chat, text, email, and so on, you can leave a message for someone and they may not receive it for a period of time.  When they get the message, they may not respond right away.  They may respond hours, days, or even weeks later.  There is no demand for immediate attention when you are conversing by any kind of text-based communication.  The message is simply sent and then left out there until the recipient responds.  As you are not physically in front of someone waiting for a response, or hearing them speak on the phone, there is no time-sensitive expectation that a response will be coming shortly.  This means that a conversation can span many hours or many days of back-and-forth messages via text, email, Facebook.  As a result of this, one’s perception of the social interaction shifts: instead of making time for a start-to-finish conversation with that person, you are fitting the conversation in to the spaces between the activities and obligations of your daily life.  It is a devaluation of the conversation to the point where it’s not so much that you are interested in engaging with the person, rather it has the feel that you are managing or simply keeping up with their messages to you at a pace that suits your lifestyle and schedule.

5. Information addiction.  This world overloads us with information constantly, and we have been conditioned to both crave and create more.  There is a constant need to know things and be up-to-date with the latest flow of information, and also to continuously flow information to others about ourselves.  Reading and commenting on blogs, news sites, checking and updating Facebook, sending and receiving email and text messages are all a part of this culture we have created.  The obsession with the exchange of new information trickles in to our interpersonal behavior in noticeable ways.  We check our phones while we are engaged in face-to-face interactions with others, we take photographs of our food, our pets, our friends, our purchases, the car accident we just saw, the cool cloud formation in the sky, our faces, and post them on Facebook regularly for others to receive and then comment on.  There is nothing wrong with the exchange of information, but we must remain aware of our habits, how often we find ourselves frequenting various communication outlets and the manner through which and intent behind how we communicate.  If we find that we are needlessly checking social media sites (for example) without much practical benefit to ourselves, you may wish to ask yourself what is behind the constant checking and needing to seek out more information.

6.  We communicate when it's unnecessary.  I'm not talking about having a conversation with a friend to catch up and see what's new with them, because that serves a legitimate and valid purpose.  I'm referring to the conversations that are wholly empty of meaningful data and that basically exist to fill up space.  "Hey", "Whats up", "Not much, you?", "I’m at work, really bored" "Lol me too" etc.  These interactions serve to occupy our time and distract our attention from the things we should be focusing on (work or school?), but they don't have an actual purpose beyond providing a distraction.  It is possible that these conversations spring up out of the need to feel some sort of connection to another person, or is it because we find it so impossible to remain present at our jobs or at school or while going about our daily activities that we default to feeling “bored” and must then seek out communication to find relief from that perceived boredom?

7.  We creep.  This is naturally only relevant to social media websites, as personal email and text messages are off-limits to our social circle.  The use of social media websites to communicate is a major development in how modern social interaction works, especially within the past ten years.  Instead of talking to someone to find out what's going on in their life, we can just visit their profile page or read their latest status update.  Updates about people automatically show up in our news feed, giving us the info whether we want it or not.  We know things about them, and vice-versa, without ever having to actually talk to them or send them a message.  Brilliant!  And somewhat creepy!  It's become a part of many people's daily lives, however, to broadcast information in such a way to a large number of people, and to seek out other people's personal broadcasts.  Every person becomes a bit of a celebrity in this regard, and we don't bat an eye when people know things about us that we haven't told them personally, because we're aware that we've already put out a virtual press release.


Draw your own.

Natalie Schreiber holds a BA in Communication from Simon Fraser University. When she's not working her day job at a small publishing company, she enjoys acting on the stage, singing anything from pop music to opera, and playing with her cat.


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