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We’re Really Talkin’ Now–Is There Meaning Behind Communications in a Wired-Up World?

Ithaca, NY Social networks as engines of hyper communication, recommendation, and annotation have come of age. With Facebook (now the size of a small country with more than 500 million users [1]) and Twitter (more than 190 million users [2]) leading the pack it seems that most of us want to feel connected, linked in, friended, re-tweeted, heard, seen, and paid attention to because, darn it, we matter. Like it or not modern self-image for some people may be equal to the number of connections in their personal social networks. The concept of mass communication in 2011 may boil down to being able to place yourself at the center of some kind of a complex network diagram with many, many nodes.

Our stories, images, on-the-spot videos and experiences are unique. Reports from citizen journalists [3] indicate that a random individual's explanation of significant, distributed worldwide events in 140 characters or less may trump major news organizations' abilities to get there first. The authenticity of real people who freely share their first-hand experiences without allegiance to an organizational point of view represents a democratization of information that has increasing appeal to the "crowd" [4] [5].

An it's not just that the combined efforts of 500+ million distributed micro reporters and analysts are powerful, it's that their preferences–what we like, what we support, who we know, where we are and what products we use–provide competitive insights based on how we self-identify online.

"Today well over 1 million sites include the "like" button."[6]

Corporate giants understand better than anyone just how unique and valuable you are.  They are vying for your ideas by trading better technology and other benefits for a bigger and more detailed picture of your online, and offline, life.

And if people continue to come online to broadcast personal news and preference details 24/7, where will email fit in–which at least gives the illusion of private communication? What, you over 25-year-olds may well gasp, no email? Sadly it must be reported that no one under the age of 25 [7] seems to know or care about email. It is regarded as an antiquated method of communication used by parents, oldsters and officialdom by those who will manage our communications infrastructure in the future.

While Google has placed a marker in the ground with it's well-used GMail system (193.3 million users monthly [8]) and attempted to use it to build its own version of a social network (Buzz [9]), GMail may ultimately fade in the rear view mirror as specialized applications and services access the Internet with something other than the http protocol, [10] and under 25s continue to talk to each other via Facebook, texts, online game environments, shared links, ratings and hashtags from inside content networks like YouTube and many others.

Back in the analog world NPR recently asked listeners to submit "cherished mail" [11] to remind us of the delight most of us have experienced in sending or receiving a special a piece of paper mail. The wealth of culture and history encompassed in the heartfelt exchange of written letters is a large part of our shared memory. If the future of interpersonal communication is evolving into a semantic, Internet-based model will the US mail system go the way of the dinosaur quickly followed by email?  Where will we find the remnants of deeply personal human written communications as the personal social graph ascends to cultural prominence?

And speaking of one-way communications, who will pay attention to what's in a static informational web site when everyone has followers, RSS subscribers and friends to talk to all the time?

The appeal of informational or marketing web sites where carefully curated content is presented in hopes that it will be indexed, ranked highly, or that someone will show up and dig deep is also in question [10]. Tina Brown, editor of The Daily Beast and past editor of The New Yorker recently added Newsweek [12] to her portfolio. She feels that there is a marketing niche for in-depth, static informational publications and their corresponding highly-edited web sites when there is a need to present material leading to a deeper understanding of complex ideas and issues.

A quick look at the fast-paced, ever-changing and mixed context content on The Daily Beast however, provides insight into big differences between static and dynamic content. Online users make selections about what to interact with based on what's new, current or of focused personal interest—right now. Highly vetted informational web site content is best digested out of the realm of everyday monitoring of multiple channels of information while rushing to a meeting. One-way communication web sites are mini-repositories of the "information of record" that change occasionally. The ability to see the dynamic self reflected back through multiple interfaces will likely continue to have greater overall communications appeal.

We are all in relationship with colleagues, friends, families and far-flung relatives. When a family member moved from Boston to the west coast in the 19th century letters were few and far between. Still, when the mail arrived it was carefully digested, re-read, and saved with great interest as evidence of intense sentiment, connection and meaning expressed over time and distance. It is unclear whether ubiquitous online communications systems have the power to convey that same intensity. It is not about which system hosts the most users even though the U. S. Postal System has also joined the competition for market share with new rules for delivering junk mail [13]. The real battle is for the meaning and impact behind communications in relationship to others— how can what I think, say and prefer be everyone's favorite?

Communications methods and attitudes will continue to evolve as devices and technologies change bringing many related issues into focus. Should all of this interconnected chatter become a part of the scholarly record and if so, how? What are the ethics around transparent communications–do we need or want to know everything about everyone and everything? What does "mass communication" mean as niche market broadcast models become a more effective in gaining public mindshare? As communications become shorter where will society's "big ideas" reside?

Let's talk—please add your comments.