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Old skills, new technology

By Pamela Weatherill - posted Thursday, 25 October 2012


Digest enough media coverage about social media, and you would be forgiven for thinking it is the creation of the devil. 'Facebook party ends in murder'; 'Tweet closes business; 'YouTube breaches copyright'; and 'Blog leads to suicide' the headlines scream. These reactions are well ensconced in our history of human interaction with communications technology. The telegraph was predicted to destroy national economies with trans-Atlantic transmission of stock information; television broadcasts were criticised for disempowering world leaders by providing the public with 'too much' information; and the printing press was vilified as the demise of religious knowledge preservation. We've invented communication strategies before and survived.

The desire to be social beings is written into our DNA as a survival mechanism - both physical and mental. Along with technologies to better harvest food and hunt, we have also created ways of communicating more effectively through drumming and smoke signals. These were the prehistoric precursors of the Internet, which then led to the development of social media. Like most technologies, they are invented for one purpose, and then we create new uses - with unintended consequences. Most critically two things remain constant in the history of the development of communications technology - we are both their masters and their servants, and we have always had the power to control their use. Yet inanimate technologies are often blamed for human actions.

New communication technologies create social revolutions. Smoke signals improved hunting techniques, couriers spread news of emerging battle techniques, railroads opened up frontiers, telegraph opened the global economy, and the telephone made long distance relationships possible. The Internet and subsequent advent of social media is no different. Good, bad or indifferent, humans (with our propensity to mistake making) lead the social change that new technologies foster.

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By its very name, social media involves people and technologies. A potentially dangerous combination when you consider the road toll, weapons use, and even deaths caused by falling fridges (not as uncommon as you might think!). On the surface 'death by social media' might appear to be a long bow to draw, but there are some who believe adverse social media experiences such as cyber bullying have been a precursor to suicide. At the very least, a positive public profile (as an organisation or individual) can take a battering when designing a social media presence is taken lightly. You can't escape social media judgement entirely, with some psychologists claiming that being absent from social media may be a sign you are a psychopath. Whether you use social media or not, it will impact on your social profile - so you might as well get it right. How hard can it be when we have been communicating with one another, via technology, since the beginning of time?

A quick peek into the history of telecommunications uncovers truisms we can draw upon for our infatuation with social media:

Effective communication takes skill. Building effective fires for smoke signals, and then learning to code and decode the signals drew upon a similar skill-set we used to learn to place a telephone call on a party line or send a telegraph. Communication via technology has always required us to both be proficient in technology use, and in building effective messages for the desired communication. The skills required to use and maintain Internet connected devices and associated software are one set of skills - and clearly articulating our message on different platforms is another. You succeed in social media when you take time to learn the skills of effective 140 character Tweeting, writing useful blog comments and choosing the best platform for well designed messages. In short, you need to learn the skills required for both the technology, and creating effective communiqué for particular platforms.

Understanding another is nigh impossible. There was a time when hand written letters were commonplace communication and you had to decipher the meaning of poorly constructed sentences and messy handwriting. This is no different to an operator having to listen through static on a telephone line or a telegraph operator not being able to keep up with quickly transmitted messages. Decoding, or understanding what a sender means is a complex task. Social media requires us to critically evaluate messages, largely in a textual form, and often via non linear threads or email trails. Effective communication via social media requires us to digest messages and check in with communicants. Despite the speed of transmission, taking our time to follow online conversations has become critical to successful communication.

A secret is a rare commodity. When we first sent smoke signals, tribes would encode them so that warring factions couldn't understand the signals. Warring factions learned to decode, and we learned that no communication is private. Add to this that humans like the powerful feeling of uncovering and telling secrets and it's a wonder the word 'privacy' has survived. Social media is not only public, it is permanent. It is important then to know why you are using this technology, what you want to say and how you will be perceived. In short you need to develop your 'voice' and understand that potentially billions of people will receive your message - whether they are the intended audience or not.

Social groups set up their own mores. When postal systems were established across country and continent, letter writing took on an art form. One would write in particular styles and languages depending on the recipient and their social grouping. When it comes to social media, netiquette is just as culturally specific. While we might share baby photos with family on Facebook, it is less acceptable to do the same on a business Twitter account. While emoticons assist us with the lack of paralinguistic clues in social media discourse, Western emoticons are different to those used by the Japanese. While the ubiquitous nature of social media has blurred our sense personal and professional boundaries, the reality of cultural boundaries of different social groups remains. Social media requires us to lurk a little, and spend time understanding specific netiquette - before jumping in.

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A quick peek into the skills needed with past communications technology reveals we already know how to approach social media for communication. The problem is not with the advances in technology, but in our human frailty which results from not learning the lessons of the past on effective interpersonal communication. Social media is only the tool by which we humans will make mistakes again and again - in the hope of getting it right eventually. It is time the headlines more accurately declare: 'Idiot uses Facebook without a clue about the basics of effective communication'!

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About the Author

Pamela Weatherill is a technology social scientist, currently undertaking a PhD on computer mediated communication and teaching online at Edith Cowan University Perth, and residing in Queensland. She has a number of journal and magazine (and e-zine) publications and a Blog (on computer mediated communications) at http://www.text-to-me.com/.

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