The future of communications is interpersonal

I began teaching communication studies in 2001, when I was hired out of my post-doctoral fellowship to be the first professor in the new communication studies program at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. My first week was marked by the first great tragedy of the 21st Century, when the World Trade Centre was bombed and everything changed. Suddenly, the world seemed smaller and more interconnected. Cable news network, cellphones and email gave us a sense of being there and participating in the events as they unfolded in New York City – a feeling that was only intensified by the advent of social media and ubiquitous mobile computing.

The technologies of communication have always had a big impact on our society, culture and business. The printing press ushered in a new age of knowledge sharing and standardization that culminated in the industrial revolution. Now social media, smartphones and tablet technologies are binding us into a tightly knit network that doesn’t so much resemble an orderly grid, as it does the heaving surges and flows of communication in a town square packed with people, awaiting an event. If anything, social media have turned daily life into an unmissable event which captures the poetry of the everyday. We have all heard the complaint that “no one wants to know what you had for lunch” and yet we share this information on Twitter and Facebook and we are inspired by it, wanting to meet the challenge posed by knowledge of what another has done. Indeed, social media have begun to transform our culture, politics and economics.

Our world is no longer as it was. Our world is no longer as even I – with my 39 short years on this Earth – remember it to be. My father often speaks wistfully of a rural Northern Ontario world that is long gone and mostly forgotten. I always thought that I would not be in his position, that the world I lived in was always vital and real and true – that it would persist and exist forever. It has not. The world I grew up in during the 1970s and 1980s is as remote to the digital natives of today as the world of my father’s youth in the Northern bush camps was to me.

Truthfully, we are in the beginnings of a move from the print and broadcast model of newspapers, book publishers, terrestrial radios stations and broadcast television networks to an age of self-publishing and interpersonal sharing via social media. This change is a shift from a culture of gatekeepers, editors and experts to a culture of storytellers, rhetoric and persuasion. This means a move from understanding culture and business through the lens of mass communication theory toward thinking of mediated communication as a primarily interpersonal phenomenon.

While this might seem to many to be a largely academic distinction, having little bearing on the world of motion and action outside the university, in fact it is a phenomenally important distinction to begin to fathom. Mass communication privileged experts and gate keepers. It had very high production values that demanded significant investment on the part of media companies to create content that was fit to print or broadcast. It was a world of hierarchy, rules and constraint. That world is rapidly disappearing and being replaced by a place where the human voice, the story and the village are of primary importance.

We are morphing into a society shaped and organized by the tenets of oral culture – fluid, chatty, playful, emotional and mistrustful of expertise and authority. Its rhythms are in tune with the flow of conversation, rather than segregated by the categories and boxes of print and broadcast. The operative skills, identified half a century ago by Marshall McLuhan, are pattern matching and fit. Statistics and probability reign in this world, while rigid logic fades. It is a world of relative and local understanding, not universalism. It is world where people are motivated by principles rather than constrained by unenforceable rules.

It’s a whole new world and I will be back at regularly writing this blog to explore it with you.

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