on real communication

I want to write about communication, more specifically, the state of communication today, and everything that’s wrong with it. Yes, I hate this type of article too. At base, my point is one that I’m certain has been brought up before, and one that likely has been spoken on at length by people far more entitled to speak on such matters than myself, but perhaps this is one of those things you write more for oneself than for an audience. So, if you don’t get anything out if it, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Our world today is dominated by communication; more people connect in more ways today than ever before. You can spend an hour online and read more opinions about a topic written by more people and more diverse set of people than would be possible for nearly anyone even a fifty years ago to do in a month. Meaning in one day, a devoted person could accumulate more direct communication with the people of this world than our grandparent’s generation could in a year. As an aside, in case you are thinking that these numbers seem awfully made up, understand that they are, entirely made up. However, I feel the point still very much stands.

We live in the communication age. Anyone who has not actively shunned modernity is bombarded with more communication than could possibly have been achieved in any previous age of human history. This is almost entirely due to the internet and to the ways that other older means of media have adapted to this rise of the web. Now that McDonalds can directly wish you a Happy Easter, with the same presence in your life that a friend would have, everything has changed.

This change has led to a plethora of good things. It has shielded old relationships that would traditionally have eroded away from the winds of time. It has given creative projects with a hard to define and dispersed niche a chance to not only see the light of day but at times shine. It has allowed for people with insight, who in the past would have been lost without a chance at the spotlight, an avenue to touch those who needed to hear what they have to say. It provides a voice to those who would have gone voiceless, or at least a speakerphone to those lost in a crowd. It is a good thing.

However, as with any change, it’s come with its own set of difficulties. With communication so abundant each person must fight for an ear. So many of us do not live our lives and communicate it when it is requested, we communicate our lives and live it when it is required. I have ______ pictures of me on Facebook. ______ pieces of proof that I have had fun, I’ve been places, done things, _______ artifacts that all point to my real, important, exciting existence. It all stems from a need to be validated; we lack the inner peace to see worth within ourselves so we derive worth from our outward personas. I’ve spoken with friends on multiple occasions about the ‘coveted non-friend Facebook like’; the moment where a friend of a friend offers validation in the form of a mouse click and attaching their seal of approval to whatever you’ve done. The ease of communication has carved out an avenue which circumvents the need for a second person. It’s the flipside of the afore mentioned speakerphone in a crowd. Yes, you can now be heard, but everyone else a speakerphone too, so while someone will hear you, you’ll still just be a part of the noise.

I should mention that this is not meant to demonize Facebook, or any of the other social media sites. Facebook is by far the most useful tool for maintaining secondary and tertiary friendships. Used well these social media platforms do more to preserve social networks than likely anything else today and I am extremely thankful for this.

The end result of all this communication, however, is that we live in a world completely saturated by it. This overload means that everyone is fighting with each other to be seen and heard. The competition has formed our world in two distinct ways, one of which to some extent follows from the other. The first, is that views are valued above all else. Views equal quality. Fifteen Facebook likes or retweets brings your communication into the eyes of hundreds, it must have value else it would not have spread so far, and because of this, you as the originator, must also have value. If you’re an organization or corporation, one million hits is quantifiable proof of quality, again the idea of validation rears its head, although this time at a commercial level where views also equal dollars. The ‘view economy’ has merged with the traditional economy, blurring the lines between friend, organization and corporation. This addition of the monetary incentive to the already communication saturated world is blood in the water. Suddenly it’s not only people you know who want to communicate with you, its television, newspapers, businesses and basically everything else.

What results is a cacophony.  We no longer must visit New York to see Times Square. We live it every day. We stand in the middle of a world which bombards us with “Look at me!”

“No, look at me!”

“Hey you! I’m important, check this out!”

But as anyone who has lived in a city will know, humans have a remarkable capacity to tune out that which they understand as ‘background noise’. Proof of this can be found whenever those of us who’ve become accustomed to city life find actual quiet and only then realize all the clamor our minds have been constantly filtering out of our day-to-day lives. Thus as these constant demands for communication begin to get filtered out, those doing the communicating must do more to be heard. As traditional news sources are met with the competition of social networks they must find ways to either distinguish themselves completely or, alternatively, immerse themselves so deeply within the social network that they are now sustained by the network itself. The “Look at me” crowds are those who’ve embraced the latter option in this dichotomy. These are the people and organizations that’ve fully accepted the idea that the reach of your communication is the value of it, disperse your message as widely as possible and that is success. Those who’ve pushed this method have almost got it down to a science; websites like Buzzfeed have nearly perfected the art of lazy link bait and have become remarkably popular in doing so. This acceptance of the view economy and preference for mass communication seems to now be the basic understanding that a vast majority of the world adheres to today.

However, I would like to take a second to give a nod to those who’ve chosen the former option. Those who’ve made the decision to rather be dictated by social media, to do what it cannot. This almost universally comes in the form of diving deeper rather than swimming a wider area. Those who swim on the surface can be seen by others, and what they see can be easily understood for those on the beach can largely see what they see, so it is easily digestible. However, those who dive deep are not only invisible for large periods of time they also resurface with experiences and explanations that are not readily understood by us on the beach, for we cannot relate to the different perspective that is gained from the underwater view. Examples of these deep-water divers can be found in all forms of modern day communication. TED talks, are an interesting example, as they were formed out of the internet age which gave rise to the cacophony of communication we live in today, but the best talks are those which do away with the idea of view bate and rather aim to provide the best platform for a currently surfaced diver to recount their experiences. Other examples of this rejection of the view economy can be found in documentaries, well researched novels, in-depth news reports, art and academia. I would even go as far as to say that honest communication through social media is an example of deep water diving, but for this to be fully understood I must first go back to Times Square.

Times Square is where a majority of us live our lives today, thousands of attempts to communicate with us from people, businesses and media. The world of view economy has two central tenants. It’s understood that if you want to get someone’s attention you must be fast, and you must be loud. In a world where communication comes so quickly you only get the spotlight for the briefest of seconds and therefore if you do not make an impact in that space of time, someone else will come along and you’re no lost.

Speed is important on two fronts, the first is that you must be as easily digestible as possible, if you don’t make it clear to me what you’re getting at before something else comes along, and I probably won’t take the time to figure it out. The second is that people crave feeling informed, so the moment something new happens, it is inherently interesting. This thing remains interesting for as long as new details emerge, given that nothing newer occurs and knocks it out of the public eye of course. Once new details of the event no longer satisfy the immediacy the public demands it loses its inherent interest factor and people move on. This has the unfortunate consequence of leaving many of us misinformed about stories where truth emerges weeks or months later because the event has lost its luster and therefore the new information does not spread nearly as far.

Volume is important to communicate that which does not, or cannot, have the value of immediacy. It does not refer directly to actual decibels, but rather how the information is presented. For example, “Scientists cure cancer” is loud; “Scientists begin stage two of animal testing trials for new skin cancer drug” is dramatically quieter. To put it another way, if you can’t be telling people breaking news about the world, you’d better tell them news that their world is breaking, or no one will listen. This quality of ‘loudness’ comes from an emotional response, the emotion itself is relatively unimportant. The goal is to get the person to feel the emotion so that they pay attention to whatever you’re communicating and then more importantly communicate what you’ve said to others. This extension of the lines of communication is the ultimate currency of the view economy. The ‘share’ feature is god.

Due to these two factors of understanding what we are bombarded with is not actually just, “Hey, look at me!” But rather:

“I had the BEST time at this concert, the BEST, my life is GREAT, like if you agree”

And

“Thousands of people just like you are DIEING, share if you care”

And perhaps most viciously,

“You’re ugly and incompetent; here are 4 ways to fix that, retweet to show you know what you’re doing more than other people”

These are the types of messages we are bombarded with on a daily basis. These are the main ways people are trying to communicate with you but it includes a fundamental flaw, which as time goes on becomes more apparent. This flaw is that increasing the volume only works if no one else is doing it, but once everyone is then the human mind just ramps up the levels which will now be tuned out and goes on about their day. This has occurred to an extent where on a daily basis we walk through a world that is figuratively and occasionally literally screaming at us that what they have to say is important and you should pay attention. But the demands for attention are so numerous and widespread no one can possibly adhere to them all, so in the end everyone finds coping mechanisms. Some find a few sources of information they trust and block out the rest, others pick specific groupings of information to be experts on, many people are simply happy to take whatever communication is most easily accessible and decide that which is not in front of them cannot be that important and then there is the simple decision to block it all out. To decide that the surface swimming sources are not nearly enough to gather any real truth about the issues and therefore they are useless and it is better to have no knowledge at all and be spared the cacophony than to immerse oneself in it and be left with a bunch of feelings but still no guarantee of actual knowledge gained.

What is most important to note here, however, is that nobody is happy with the situation. To cope is not to embrace. Everyone is thrilled by the amount of information available to them; Wikipedia is arguably a greater source of knowledge than has ever existed in human history, but everybody understands that the ways new information is being presented to them are fundamentally flawed. The constant bombardment of messages informing us that it is in our dire interest to care about them dulls their effect. What is and is not important is no longer obvious because it is in the direct interest of the communicators to make you think everything they are saying is important. We’re all standing helplessly on the beach as hundreds of people with water up to their hips are declaring that they’re drowning. Eventually we walk away, and one actually dies.

Now this wouldn’t be so much of a problem if it was simply a symptom of the current mainstream news networks. There are other sources of news, some of which do not play this game, and the benefit of all this available communication is that people can work together to find out the truth that leaks through. The problem is that this fault of for profit news is rather a problem that has existed the entire time news has existed but it has been completely blown to another level with the rise of the view economy. The reason I’ve delved into it so deeply here is because it acts as an excellent example of exactly what the problem with valuing the view above all else is, and that is fakeness.

The problem with the view economy is that a layer of fakeness pervades nearly all of it. Whether it takes the form of mock outrage over a policy decision, exaggerated explanations of danger that exists within a situation (Is your child shoving vodka loaded tampons up his anus? More at 11) or even the minute lies of our own enjoyment or displeasure with the life we are living that creep into our online personas. The bottom line, ultimately, is that everyone in the view economy is faking it.

****

My favourite time of day is 2am. This is largely because it’s the time I feel I get the most real communication. It’s a time where conversations are no longer constrained by what you need to do next, because let’s face it, you’ve already given up on a good night’s sleep, and perhaps more importantly, there is an intimacy in late night conversations. This is likely partially due to the fact that only a select few shall make it to 2am, but I feel that also there is an intimacy in knowing that your city is asleep as well. What stems from this intimacy is the central tenant of this piece, and that is honesty. Or more specifically, I believe that what is truly craved in today’s communication saturated world is honesty. Honesty and humanity.

The communication bombardment dulls us to the humanity that surrounds us. We live in an echo chamber of faked emotion and desperate pleas for attention. But again, I feel it is necessary to stress that this comes from all aspects of our lives today and cannot and should not be blamed on the social media sites that have given rise to the view economy. To shun Facebook and think you’ve escaped this cacophony is akin to asking your travelling partner to be quiet as you walk through Times Square. You’ve done nearly nothing to avoid the volume but have shut out the one person you know who’s making the noise.

What all of this leaves us with is a real communication deficit. As an aside, I should qualify that by deficit I do not mean that there is less ‘real’ communication happening now than there was in the past. I am not one to look back on history to a mythical ‘golden age’. However, it is certain that the percentage of ‘communication’ we experience today that could be considered as really human to human is dramatically lower than it probably ever has been before. And because of this, we crave it. We crave it in the same way that we crave true nature. Often unconsciously, but when the cool breeze off the lake hits your face, or you share a 2:31 moment of clarity with a friend it just feels right. As I write this, however, it’s becoming clear that ‘real communication’ is far too vague of a term to get my point across. So I will have to expand on it.

At its heart, I understand ‘real communication’ to be sharing. The fact that this term overlaps with the heart of what I have termed the ‘view economy’ is its own spot of irony as the meaning of the word sharing in each context could not be more different. I have been going over a thought in regards to this ‘real communication’ and sharing for quite some time and I think it fits here.

I believe that the general purpose of communication and human interaction is the unconscious search to share a moment. To ‘share a moment’ I mean to truly have the same experience of the same event at the same time as another person. These moments, nearly all fleeting, are often what define our lives. They are the moments we remember years and decades later and yet they are also often the most private. It’s rare to hear someone speak of a moment they truly shared with another person and yet when you describe the feeling nearly all can relate. We live our lives alone, but in these shared moments we escape our own mind for a split second and enter a collective one. It breaks the individualistic nature of our entire lives down, if only momentarily. Part of the appeal of spectacles such as concerts and sporting events is this chance to share a moment with others. This also explains why it’s more enjoyable to attend these events with someone who appreciates them as much as you do, because in the parts that are truly spectacular you are more closely sharing the moment.

To close off this slight sidetrack in regards to ‘real communication’ and moments, I would argue that it’s partially due to this search that a few close friends can be far more valuable than many dispersed ones. One of the most common regrets held by the elderly is that they did not keep in touch with old friends. That of course is not to equate old friends with close friends, but if you keep your close friends around long enough they become both. The reason I give such regard to close friends is that they provide us with the greatest opportunity for shared moments, and the reason for this is twofold. The first is the host of shared experiences that you have already lived through. I separate shared experiences from shared moments, as these experiences are simply things you both were together through, not fragments in time where each of you shared an identical state of mind. Nevertheless these shared experiences provide you with a stronger platform from which you can draw back on during moments. The second, and perhaps more important, is that you simply understand one another. This is derived not only from sharing experiences but also sharing your thoughts, feelings, and opinions. Each door you open to your own mind for someone else to walk through creates a stronger chance to share a moment. I could go on to speak about the power and value of a shared moment but I’m already so off track I’ll stop this side road here for now.

To return back to the idea of ‘real communication’ and now with the understanding that I understand ‘real communication’ as a sharing of not necessarily a moment, as that would define it too narrowly, but rather any form of sharing that leads you closer to this unconscious goal. Perhaps this thought is more easily understood if spoken of as what I do not consider real communication, which can be broken into two parts. These two parts are pointed at by the words I’ve used to describe them, ‘real’ and sharing.

First, ‘real’ emphasizes the requirement that what is being communicated is an honest representation of one’s actual thoughts or experiences. Phoniness does no one any good. It doesn’t matter how much you want to be the person who likes baseball or Radiohead, or that you are the kind of person who’s deeply interested in philosophy, you cannot fake it. Or perhaps more accurately, you can fake it, but you’re better off not doing so. Not only will it eventually become clear that you aren’t that kind of person, you will have wasted your time and whomever you are trying to convinces time because you will never share anything in regards to whatever you are faking. This phony interest usually stems from people who fail to be able to see that the value of communication stems from a sharing of your own person. Having similar interests may make conversation less sticky, but faking an interest in hopes of avoiding awkwardness is to deprive yourself of any worthwhile communication at all.

This is what makes people so wary of others who seemingly can flip a switch and be different people depending on who they are talking to. It makes you question if any of what you’ve seen is the true version of this person, and more importantly for my point, if you’ve ever engaged in real communication with them.

The second, sharing, will help close out this portion and get us back on track in regards to the underlying point of this paper. The word sharing is important in this context because although it is largely something that one person does to another; it implies an interest and complicity from the second person. The real distinction I want to make is between ‘sharing’ and ‘telling’. Telling is nothing more than self-aggrandizement, we’ve all experienced a time where we are speaking with someone and at some point it becomes completely evident that your own presence in the conversation is merely decoration. The person speaking could very easily continue unabated without you there and therefore no real communication is occurring. The problem with our communication saturated world is that nearly everybody’s telling, and that in the realm of those who’ve bought into the view economy, everybody is.

The state of perpetual telling isn’t inherently a problem. Advertisers have been ‘telling’ as a form of communication since it began. I stated earlier that in face-to-face interactions telling has become commonplace enough that everyone can remember a time it has happened to them. The only difference from now and other times is that telling is now a vast majority of all communication that we come across and this is what I was referring to earlier as the real communication deficit.

What I see in this real communication deficit is opportunity. Not opportunity for corporations or individuals mind you, as it is impossible for corporations to avoid the ‘telling’ of advertising so they might as well stick to trying to tell you something as interestingly as possible. As for individuals, the reality is that no matter how firmly I believe that the 17th picture of you at a concert must actually start to detract from your enjoyment of the show itself, it’s each individual’s prerogative to communicate however they like so I’m ignoring that as well. The opportunity is there for non-profits, charities and social innovation ventures because these are the groups that play around in the middle ground of corporations and people. Their goal is not to sell you anything but perhaps their message and then hope that perhaps you donate if you ascribe to their values. And so their message becomes a hodgepodge of news stories vaguely related to what they are doing, a few organizational updates that amount to nothing more than your friends ‘Going to swim 5k today, wish me luck!’ status update and desperate pleas for interaction.

“What are you going to do with your long weekend?”

“The WHO says you should drink 5 litres of water a day, how much water do you drink?”

The latter of these messages stems from a misguided understanding of communication, the mantra is to always try and start a conversation, but people don’t engage ‘telling’ and all three of these messages are simply examples of that. Even the third which asks a question, it gives no humanity out and therefore people will not respond with their own. A question answered without any interest in the answer is no better than no question at all.

I feel it is necessary here to briefly mention that I do not blame the state of these messages on the people actually writing them. Most modern day non-profit/charity organizations operate in a manner where the higher ups decide that the organization must be on social networking sites because that is what everybody is doing now but simultaneously put absolutely no value into it and it thereby gets dropped down to the most junior member of the staff. Which leaves these multimillion dollar organizations with their public face being controlled by unpaid or underpaid staff. What this leads to is the continuation of exactly the messages I’ve laid out above, these low level staff do not have the security to try to expand their repertoire else risk being reprimanded or worse, fired, but they also don’t have the clout to bring new ideas to the table. So they’re stuck scouring the internet for the next mildly interesting piece of news that one or two of their followers may halfheartedly ‘like’ or ‘favourite’ as a sign of support but nothing more.

Nothing ever really catches with these messages because the messages themselves have no hooks. In an earlier part of this piece I spoke of ‘deep water diving’ and at one point connected honest interaction as a form of this, and I would like to get back to that thought now. One of the central parts of deep water diving is to go somewhere those on the beach cannot, and this can be done in many ways. The more traditional way of doing this is to simply research, each new piece of knowledge you uncover from research is a below the surface truth. The more you research the deeper your dive. But there are other types of dives too and the one I’m going to centre on is honesty. Honest communication conveys humanity and humanity is what we crave in this communication saturated world.

Real humanity cannot be purveyed through the view economy, because real humanity must come from a place that is not consciously trying to be viewed. Real humanity can be shown and seen, but not told. This thought isn’t entirely new, in fact the understanding of the power of humanity has been used to such an extent that our first reaction to seeing it is often skepticism. “This person can’t simply be saying that, they must want something” is the usual thought. Yet, despite this skepticism the communication that has hooks and digs into peoples consciousness’s is that which displays humanity. Whether this communication comes in the form of a reddit post discussing one man’s experiences when his car broke down (today you, tomorrow me) or a wedding party dancing down the aisle, it is the humanity that makes it catch. The best examples of social media use are made by those who speak to no one but themselves, this is the way to best avoid ‘telling’ and to most assuredly display humanity.

This is where the opportunity lies. An organization that displays its own humanity will be able to connect with those who support it on a dramatically stronger level. To attempt this would also to flip the view economy on its head, it would require an organization to accept that maybe it won’t be seen by as many people because what it’s providing isn’t gauged to be a quick and easily digestible sound bite. Rather it would value the quality of impact over the sheer quantity of views.

The degradation of internet comment boards from high content slow to digest posts towards low content quick to digest posts as the size increases is well documented. This change drives away those who created the space that gained popularity in the first place until none remain active, thus leaving the board completely unrecognizable from what it once was. With this piece, I am arguing that it is better to get the attention of the first few hundred who started the board than the following thousands who sign on afterwards.

Humanity in communication is quality content. Deep sea diving is quality content. Create quality content and you will set yourself apart. The final step to this thought is set yourself apart and you will be noticed, but the point of this is to never work towards that last step. Focus on the last step and you’ll soon begin forgetting the first three. There are innumerable ways to display humanity, change the form of organizational updates to really show and explain the thought process within them, comb your ranks for news stories that truly touched a specific person, have them explain who they are and also why they find it important. Free your social media coordinators to really be themselves. Don’t take yourself or your organization too seriously. Ask questions you really want to have answered. Communicate like the collection of extremely devoted humans that you are. Everybody will be better for it.

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