Monday, February 28, 2011

On the Medium Is the Message

I wonder what Marshall MacLuen would have said about today’s variety of ways for people to connect interactively with each other. Would he label some methods as hot and some as cool? Of course, his observation that “the medium is the message” referred to passive communication, such as watching television or reading.

As a writer, I am intrigued about how we express ourselves differently in different forms, and what these form allow us to convey about ourselves both in terms of content and personality. I am particularly considering four modes of communicating, several the courtesy of social networking, but each of which requires a response (as opposed to blogging or tweeting, which invite responses but do not require them.)

This week I had a chance to explore through a sample of two (researcher that I am) how my theory played out. In one case, I “chatted,” had a lengthy phone conversation (not through Skype, which does add a new dimension to talking on the phone, but still, I maintain, is not the same as talking in person), and exchanged messages with an old friend I hadn’t seen in years, but with whom I had always had a great connection. The other case was someone with whom I was establishing a new friendship. We had seen each other informally but not talked much, exchanged a few emails/messages previously; then we “chatted” and finally talked by phone.

Here are my thoughts about the pros and cons of each of these:

Email/messages through Facebook: Provides an opportunity for organizing thoughts, error free if so desired. Emails/messages allow the writer to expand on an idea, if so desired, without interruption. It works when no immediate response is required. It’s easy to miscommunicate tone, thus sometimes requiring the use of emoticons or excessive numbers of exclamation points. Although emails/messages can be informal, they are more distancing than other modes because of the passage of time between interactions. (Sometimes, emails/Facebook messages can be traded back and forth quickly, acting more like texting or chatting, but because there are no expectations about an immediate reply, they are not the same.) And sometimes no reply ever comes. Did the message get lost in cyberspace, end up by mistake in the recipient’s “trash,” or glossed over because other messages came in later.

Texting/chatting through Facebook: These two media require an immediate reaction. The quickness and short length of responses invite writers to exchange clever repartee. There is potential for playfulness. Because of the feeling of confidentiality and also because chatting is detached from face and voice, writers may be more at ease to be personally revealing than they might in a phone call. Or they may be more superficial. In addition, one can take a little time to formulate a response. Unlike in a phone call (unless one adopts the practice of taking notes!), one can keep track of thread of the conversation. It reminds me of exchanging notes in study hall.

Phone(calls of substance, not making arrangements: For introverts, phone calls can be stressful, but with good friends, they can be delightful and energizing. My sister, who was very extroverted, used to talk about those who “gave good phone.” As an introvert myself, I do envy people with quick wit. I suffer more from “l’esprit d’escalier “ (the spirit of the staircase), when I think of all the fun things I could have said after I hung up. But phone calls can take many different tones, depending on the reasons for the call (catching up, discussing one another’s issues, gossipping). The pace and flow of the conversation is sometimes determined by one party, more than another. Silence is deadly. But you can multi-task.

But none of these is a replacement for in person communication. Body language. Gesture. Facial expression. Tone. You get the whole package. Permissible silences in which you can fill space with actions like taking a sip of a drink or just smiling. Sometimes the other methods will have to do, but this is the real deal. Hot and cool.

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