The impact of the internet on communication culture

Recently I’ve been asked to give a short speech about this topic. I thought it could be useful to have it online and give others the chance to read it. I am pretty aware of the fact that it isn’t – by far – complete. WARNING: tl;dr! Enjoy 🙂

One cannot not communicate. (Paul Watzlawick)

What is communication?

Communication is always the transfer of messages that carry information between at least two participants.

What is communication culture?

Since the dawn of time there have been certain patterns of interaction between individuals that haven’t substantially changed for quite a long time. Back then survival was the only thing people cared about. To increase their chances of survival, the individuals formed a tribe to assure each other protection and to dispatch their tasks such as hunting or taking care of the offspring. But of course one member of a certain tribe only knew of the other members of his tribe and that they weren’t a threat to him, since they all depended on each other. So when encountering an individual of another tribe the question whether he was friend or foe was substantial, because he didn’t already know that. Therefore people quickly developed ways of signalizing each other that they were coming in peace and didn’t intend to do them any harm.
As time passed, different cultures developed different ways of expressing “I don’t want to hurt you” when first meeting somebody. Shaking hands is our way of saying this. And for a long time it has been absolutely necessary to know whether someone should be considered friend or foe because the only way to interact with them was face to face since the widely spread literacy is an achievement of the 20th century. So we could say that communication culture is a set of conventions that developed and exist in a certain society at a certain point of time, that are expected to be fully met by all interacting individuals.

What could possibly be difficult about communication?

When facing somebody else it is pretty hard to misunderstand his or her intentions. Usually you don’t only have the literal meaning of the words you’re using to get a message across but also mimics, gestures and – very important – context.

The German psychologist and communication expert Schulz von Thun developed the so called four sides model. He argues that any message actually consists of four different messages. First there is the factual information, then there is the appeal, the relationship and last but not least the self-revelation message. Let me introduce a short example to illustrate this model.

Say there’s a married couple on the road and one of them – the woman, for instance – is driving the car. After some time they encounter a red traffic light and while approaching it the man, who isn’t in the driving position, tells her: It’s red. Now that’s a rather simple message that is yet awfully complex. But let’s take a closer look at the four sides model of Schulz von Thun. According to his theory the message “It’s red” consists of four different message. The probably easiest one is the factual message, saying nothing more but the traffic light that we are approaching is red. When taking a look at the second message, things get a little bit more subtle. The appeal message transports something the sender wants from the receiver or wants him to do. In our case the appeal message of “It’s red” means: “Stop the car, the traffic light is red”. On the relationship level the message “it’s red” means: “Since you are driving the car you should have seen this as well and already have acted accordingly”. The self-revelation message always tells something about the sender as in our case: “I have seen that the traffic light is red”.
Now this is all very nice, but communication problems occur all the time. The question is: where do they come from? In most cases a communication problem is a mismatch between the intention of the sender of the message and the meaning of it assumed by the receiver. In real life situations we are quite good at distinguishing the actual meaning of a message. But the more you reduce the variety of expression (verbal, gestures, mimics, context) the harder it gets to unambiguously guess the meaning of the message.

How did the internet change communication culture?

In past times it was very expensive to transport information. The longer the distance between the communication participants was, the more expensive it got. And by expensive I don’t just mean that it cost a hell of a lot of money but other resources as the material for the medium carrying the message or the time the transport took as well.

The internet has changed this relationship between the cost of transportation of a message and the gain of communication drastically. Since most people living in the northern hemisphere have access to a stable and relatively cheap internet connection they are able to limitlessly send and receive information almost for free. Of course these circumstances enabled them to consume more information, gain more knowledge and benefit from it. Theoretically. Because since state-of-the-art internet connections can process a relatively high data rate there really is a limitless information traffic. The limit of perception of the receiver of a message is not set by the medium and its capacities anymore. The limit is set by the capability of processing it or the time required to do so. This has lead to an enormous information overhead that can’t be possibly dealt with by a single person. The sheer amount of information on the internet is one symptom of the cheap information transport. But there’s another one directly concerning the way we interact.

Because participating in a communication process has become very cheap in the means of money and time the communication process as such has to suffer a dramatic loss in value. And because of this loss of value the information transported in the communication process can – in some extreme cases – be literally worthless. In past times even the tiniest bit of information was valuable. Since it was rather expensive to send and receive them you had to make every word count. But these boundaries don’t exist anymore today. As I already said it is very easy and cheap to send information nowadays. So provided information don’t have to be necessarily of a certain quality that would classify them as valuable. That means that the only way to separate valuable information from junk is to actually consume them all by yourself. And as I mentioned before: that just isn’t possible. We necessarily need to filter what we want to consume and what we don’t.

What about Anonymity?

Before the internet it was basically impossible to communicate with each other in fully anonymously. Back in the day, when getting information transferred was an expensive business, you had to have a bloody good reason to send someone a message. So even if the recipient couldn’t be 100% sure about who created a messaged, he or she could be sure about the fact that the communication process and the information it got across was of some relevance. At least for the one sending it.

For most people it wasn’t necessary to hide their real identities in terms of communication. If they had to say something to each other it was relevant, because it obviously needed to be said and since it was relevant it was welcome information in the first place. Well, in most cases. When it comes to exercising power over others this is slightly different. But let’s not get carried away. When people were talking about something and didn’t agree, they simply needed to be polite about this. On the one hand they still knew that they were interacting with another human being (because they were right in front of it) and on the other hand they had to fear direct physical consequences if verbally attacking the other one too harshly or just insulting him. Unlike any other form of communication the internet gave its users the feeling of anonymity. And this anonymity inverted both features of common communication: knowing that interacting with a human being and having to fear consequences. Since most communication on the internet takes place in a text based form, misunderstandings – remember the four sides model – can easily occur. Sorting them out often leads to a very impolite language, to say the least, because in the perception of communication participants one isn’t communicating with a fellow human but with something abstract that only materializes itself in the form of letters on a computer screen. Why bother not to hurt anyone’s feelings, when I perceive the other one as not having any? And why bother to stay polite, when I am anonymous and can do whatever I want without having to fear any consequences?

Taking all this into account one could say that on the internet people have to consider each other enemies. At least when relying on text based forms of communication. But since there are other possibilites to interact online it doesn’t have to be that way. Data transfer rates nowadays allow the usage of technically more demanding applications like audio and video chats that enrich our possibilites to express ourselves apart from the literal meaning and therefore reduce the risks of misunderstandings.

So what is the impact of the internet of communication culture?

First of all the internet has made us aware of the large variety of forms of interaction. Other cultures and societies aren’t necessarily topics of a conversation anymore but much more conversation partners. That allows us to loosen up the boundaries of our own communication culture towards a more rational, less tradition-based one. It has given us the benefits of access to an incredibly large amount of data and it has doomed to of having to deal with it, which has made us impatient. The text-based forms of communication often encourage people to be on the worst behavior as well as the felt anonymity online. Forms of audio-visual communication can be a real surrogate for face to face communication and enable us to overcome large geographical distances and time differences. And apart from that the internet has also given us new vocabulary to describe social and/or communicative phenomenons such as “Shitstorm”, “trolling” or abbreviations like “LOL”.

But on there are also downsides to it. We – the heavy users of internet communication – too often forget that we are dealing with other human beings. So we lack showing respect towards others because we’re used to it that way online. The quality and value of communication has decreased because we don’t have to be so careful about it anymore because the transport of information has become so awfully cheap.

But I argue that the Internet is – in terms of communication – more of an opportunity than it is a threat. We definitely need to raise the awareness about the fact that we are always dealing with other people that have expectations, needs and most important of all- feelings. And we need to rethink the role communication plays for us in our daily lives to be able to value communication again in the same way it has been a valuable thing in past times.

Autor: Herr_Samsa

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