Filling the Communication Gaps

This post was originally published on the Idealware Blog in December of 2008.

We’ve come a long way since the Pony Express. It’s hard to imagine living in a time when your options for communication were limited to face-to-face, sllooowww mail, and, perhaps, carrier pigeon. Today, we have the opposite problem: there are so many mediums to choose from that a key communication skill is to gleam the method that the person you want to reach prefers. I was taken aback by an Australian ruling that Facebook was an acceptable medium for serving subpoenas, until I read that the defendants had been unreachable by phone or email for months beforehand. At first I thought they were just avoiding the subpoena — still a big possibility — but then I reconsidered. How many people have completely abandoned their primary email accounts, assuming that anything in them is spam, in favor of only reading their mail on Facebook or MySpace? Probably a considerable number. I know, just from my day-to-day business dealings, that I will reach some of my coworkers more effectively by phone than I will by email, and vice versa.

So we have postal mail, the telephone, the telegram, facsimile, short wave radio, walkie-talkie and intercom holding up the old guard. And we have email, cell phone, IM, chat, IRC, blogs, Twitter, forums and social networking services charging in as new(er) mediums. And I’m sure I’ve missed a bunch. The internet has opened up a Pandora’s box of communication mediums. So why use one over another? If we break it down to a manageable number of mediums, say, Phone, IM, email and Twitter, there are some intriguing differences. These differences don’t imply that one is better than another, but, certainly, one is more practical, courteous or efficient than another in a given circumstance. I evaluate the mediums on a few defining attributes:

Private or Social? While allowing that you can send group emails and IMs, and hold phone conferences, these mediums are primarily suited for one to one or a few conversations, whereas Twitter, and many of the web-based mediums, are social, with a large and partially unknown audience included.

Ambient or Invasive? A phone call is invasive, as is, to some extent, an IM. The sender is sitting there waiting for a response, so the courteous thing to do is to immediately re-prioritize whatever you’re doing and respond to them. Email and tweets, on the other hand, are casual mediums. Ignoring either one for an hour is within the bounds of the sender’s expectations.

Convenient or In Need of Management? I can send and receive IMs and Tweets and forget about them; phone calls as well, although voicemail needs to be dealt with. Email, on the other hand, is a demanding application. i have to manage it, sort it, categorize it, and clean it up.

Disposable or Archived? Phone calls and IMs, unless I record them, disappear after the conversation is ended. Emails and tweets are saved and searchable, giving me an always available archive of my communications (unless I delete them).

I suggested in a post last week that Twitter bridges the gap between email and IM, just as email bridged the gap between the letter and the phone call. Since then, I’ve been trying to figure out if a social, ambient, archive-able and convenient medium like microblogging is compelling in my organization. I took a look at Socialcast, one of the many corporate Twitter clones popping up, and I was very impressed with their implementation, which breaks the messages into statuses, ideas, questions and links.

Selling my staff on a tool like this is proving to be a challenge. The argument for it is fairly nuanced, and urging anyone to try something new on faith isn’t easy. They’re asking why this is better than the Microsoft Messenger chat application, or a more full-featured Sharepoint site? Those are good questions. Micro-messaging software lacks some of the features that these other mediums sport, but it provides a very simple and powerful, approach to information sharing that is far more collegial and less invasive than chat, while it’s simpler and quicker to use than Sharepoint. And my bet is that, in the war of communications mediums, it will ultimately be the ones that are easiest to use and least disruptive that win. Or it should be.

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