This post is a guide to the different media available for communicating today, and when to use each, and a forecast of how this will change in the next two decades.
Communicating an important message used to be easy: you walked to where the people you needed to communicate with were, and delivered the message. Today we have masses of tools for communicating, each of which has many ‘features’ that seem to have been added because they were possible rather than useful. You have to choose . So here’s a guide to deciding what tool to use when.

I expected to find lots of guidance on this subject online that I could plagiarize, but no such luck. Seems no one else has figured this out either. So let’s use the scientific method and start with objectives. We communicate for various reasons:

  • to educate, inform, or explain
  • to persuade
  • to decide
  • to connect or relate
  • to express oneself, or evoke an emotional response

Note that these objectives are from the perspective of the communicat or, not that of the communicatee (if there’s such a word). It would be interesting to do this analysis from the recipient’s perspective, what they hope to get from the communication, and see the disconnects, but I’ll leave that to someone with a better sense of irony than mine.

Next step is to identify the general types of tool, and the different communication formats available with each tool, and specify the highest and best use of each tool, i.e. what communication it is most suited to:

Tool or Medium Some Unique Advantages
Face-to-face Conveys body language, allows sidebar conversations, builds trust, coordinates multiple communication media best
Telephone Fast iteration of a few people’s ideas and knowledge , conveys tone
E-mail, Letter, Memo (anyone remember memos?) Makes the organization of complex ideas visible and easy to grasp, leaves a trail, can be saved
V-mail Conveys tone, can be saved
IM, Chat Immediate access, fast iteration of a few people’s ideas and knowledge
Weblog Provides context of communicator’s other work, categorizable, allows comments back, can be saved
Newsletter, Newspaper Brief, immediate, categorizable
Radio, TV, multimedia Compelling, reach
Videoconference (room) Visual, inexpensive
Videoconference (P-to-P) Next best thing to being there
Forum, Collaboration Tool (project, team) Egalitarian, leaves a trail
Wiki Openness, multiple voices
Format Unique Advantage
Conversation Iterative, flexible
Interview Structured
Presentation Can use multiple media

The list above greatly understates the complexity of the decision process, since the advantages aren’t black and white, and apply better in some formats, with different sized audiences, and with different deliverer/recipient communication arrangements (1-to-1, 1-to-n, room or virtual space set-up etc.). But it should allow us to at least narrow the choices sufficient to make a decision tree.

My first crack at the decision tree is shown at the top of this post. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that most people, unlike most bloggers, are slow to accept new technologies, and that most technologies are not very far along in their evolution. This first decision tree, with its preference for the tried and true, reflects this.

In some cases this tree will lead to an unsatisfactory conclusion. For example, you may conclude that although you can’t afford the trip to tell a distant employee he or she is fired, or an estranged brother that your father has died, the telephone is too impersonal. When that happens, go back to the top of the tree and reconsider the trade-offs.

I spent most of June at out of town face-to-face meetings, ranging from a brainstorming session with people I mostly knew well, to a high-school reunion with people I hadn’t seen in over 30 years, to a conference with a group of international colleagues, none of whom had ever met at all. In all these cases I concluded the meetings, though expensive, had to be face-to-face. We couldn’t afford not to meet in person.

But that’s today. I have no doubt that in a few years (a generation at most) a combination of information culture change (watch any group of teenagers communicating, anywhere in the world, and you’ll see what I mean by this phrase) and communication technology improvements, will dramatically alter this decision tree, so that it looks more like the one below.
As I’ve said in my business posts, I see the weblog becoming a ubiquitous communication medium, a proxy for every individual, where everything you want to know about that individual (which they have given you permission to see) can be called up. The effect of that will be to eliminate many communications whose purpose is simply to get information. The blog will be the main vehicle by which we educate, inform and explain (the first of the five communication objectives) and express ourselves (the last of the five objectives). The middle three objectives – to persuade, decide and relate – are the more intense and participatory reasons for communicating, and even the much-improved weblogs of the future aren’t going to be up to those tasks.

I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that the communication ‘killer app’ of the future will be peer-to-peer videoconferencing. Not the bulky, cumbersome room videoconferencing tool of today, but the next-gen personal wireless webcam-based tool that will allow you to look at, and talk to, some one on the other side of the globe as if they were right beside you. For the same reason that I have predicted weblogs will transform the way in which we share information, by becoming the proxy for what you know, so do I predict webcams will transform communications by becoming the proxy for where you are. Turning on your individual webcam in the future, so others can see you, will be as simple and automatic as putting on your glasses is today, so you can see others.

And just as Social Network Enablement and Social Software will connect and empower individual weblogs, so will they connect and empower individual webcams, so where you are becomes irrelevant. When that happens, importance of face-to-face communications will plummet.

A little of this depends on advances in processing power and/or wireless bandwidth, but for the most part it depends on (a) social, cultural acceptance of new technology, (b) ubiquity of the technology (i.e. everyone has it) and (c) simplification of technology, so that it mimics what we do in face-to-face communications and hence becomes intuitive. These preconditions for success have a precedent: Fax technology was invented in the 1920s and was first used outside the military only fifty years later, when it became ubiquitous (at least in business), socially accepted (because it was inexpensive and faster than the mail) and easy-to-use.

I’m confident that these new tools will be ubiquitous by the next generation, and that technology developers will finally make them easy to use (blog technology is still a challenge to me). As to cultural acceptance, the ability of people to speak with a distant relative every day, and see them at the same time, and the ability of parents and children, and spouses to check in with each other simply and often, will suffice all by itself. The enormous benefits to business will just be the icing on the cake.

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  1. mrG says:

    Already in 2003 some 80% of polled business communicators said they preferred email over all other media for all sorts of reasons, and in my 30 years in this business, I’ve never found a use for videoconferencing as talking heads but only as a telepresence, not to show me body language (which is useless without gaze-awareness, see Hiroshi Ishii’s work on Clearboard) but as a means to show me what the telecorrespondent is seeing, as a way to share a common view of something.Anyway, there is indeed lots of thought going in these directions, they are just being done in places that are difficult to find.Here’s one: KnowledgeBoard’s Communities of Practice SIG — in response to Miguel’s musings, I’ve posted my own thoughts on a viable taxonomy space for communications, and I’ll tip you right now that it’s not as simple as an if-then-else tree, but you are right, it’s something urgent, and not all that dissimilar to the work of Shumin Zhai ten years ago in quantifying a taxonomic space for 3D control devices (I only cite Shumin because I worked with him at the time and because his method has a lot to teach us about the ergonomic analysis of this communications problem).

  2. Dina Mehta says:

    Dave, another neat post ! Puts things into perspective for some of us grappling with these issues, and makes me evaluate tools i could use in developing a youth space. Yet i feel – ask a 17 year old to read it and she may just turn around and say – “hey – so what’s new?”. I think we need to observe how this age group is communicating to be able to better predict what’s required and what’s coming in the next decade.

  3. Rob Paterson says:

    Great post Dave.I have done some work on how classic Communication Theory, designed to manage phone networks and radar, can be applied to human communication. As I read your piece this morning – will I ever get my paid work done – I got an aha and here it is.Communication theory tells us that bandwidth is very important for a signal to be received correctly. Full bandwidth for humans would be face to face where we get not only the body language, but other channels that we are hardly aware of such as touch, smell and pupil dilation. Sex may be the ultimate wide bandwidth where all aspects of the human can be brought to connection. Email would be the narrowest channel with practically all but the message stripped away. Your great tables get at this gradient of bandwidth intuitively. The more complex the message the more bandwidth we need to ensure that the correct message is received. Defined as the same intention as the sender had. I think that email is good for when we have a request – can you make lunch etc but is rotten for dealing with say a performance problem.Adding a great visual plus voice gets us close to wide bandwidth and should be great for even complex situations. Mr G’s comment about getting a lock on the eye is a very important point. We unconscuously obtain huge messages about intention and truth from the eye movments. Hence your search for such a tool. But here is how I think blogging fits and I am surprised at how powerful it is.Blogging shares with email a text and hence narrow bandwidth issue. So it is very hard to express any subtlety. Emoticons and :) can help. But until you know the other person really well we have to be careful. Now comes my point.Why does blogging work as a communication device when email is so poor- while on the surface the technology presents itself the same way in text that has poor bandwidth?The issue is related to 3 other parts of the theory Context,Surprise and Power of Signal or POS.Context leverages understanding and enables code to be compressed and for the power of the signal to be increased. As I write this in English, you can read it – you have the context for the code. With a lot of context you can compress the code. “Gd day DP how R U?”. Can be understood. But if I was writing to you in Hindi you would not get a word – wrong code. If I spoke to you in Hindi face to face you would be surprised at how much you would understand provided we were talking about day to day things and not philosophy. So context is very important for effective communication- it allows for good connection with very small code and bandwidth. My aha this morning is that Blogging adds huge context. It adds most importantly emotional and personal bandwidth in a new way. This is what Dina and I are starting to get excited about. As I visit your blog daily Dave, I build a picture of who you are and my context for you also builds – I can therefore accept a limited amount of code and bandwidth in a message because I have a huge personal context established.The other issue is surprise. Our meme immune system does 2 things. It screens out what does not fit into our established world view. It hates new ideas and it hates to be lectured too. It also screens out routine noise. I lived for years under the flight path of Heathrow and after 3 months did not hear the jets. Breaking through this immune system, in CT this is called “noise”, is a critically important design issue. Email is like a hammer. It is so direct it can create resistance. IF YOU SHOUT ON EMAIL IT PUTS PEOPLE OFF. Robin got 50 spams this morning – and she screened them out immediately. I have a filter and got only about 12. We all are screening out more and more email even the good stuff. We are being overwhelemed by the noise driven by the volume of email. But blogging is subtle. Dave’s ideas seep into the network of friemds and lurkers and break through the noise by the subtlety of their mode of presentation which is take it or leave it.Lastly we come to POS, power of signal. We get so much email because it is so cheap to send – not really because it is financially cheap but it is cheap in terms of emotional and intellectual effort. Blogging is in this context expensive. I should be working on a project but here I am thinking and writing hard on your site instead. Why? Becuase you put so much effort into your post that it demands a considered effort in repsonse. I think the best bloggers put effort into what they select and to what they say. This is the emotional effort behind the signal. It is POS. Blogging has lots of amps, email lots of volts. You need amps to break through the noise.Have a good one Dave – I have got to do some work work nowCheers Rob

  4. Shain says:

    Dave, excellent analysis/sythesis.Probably beyond the scope of this post –and perhaps considered but ommitted because of that — is some mature application of human communication via Virtual Reality (unlikely in the next couple decades however).The bandwidth required would be tremendous, but that would likely be THE “way-out” future killer app (really an extension or evolution of the P2P videoconferencing medium you suggested).Assuming sufficient simulation of a group face-to-face environment, it would likely replace that medium as the most powerful given its promise for simultaneous group and individual (sidebar) interaction not only with others, but with electronic media.Imagine “realtime, virtual-space collaboration” with each person having the ability to:. Access, edit, and manipulate a whiteboard, spreadsheet, document, program, application, etc. common to all realtime in the VR space.. Immediately retrieve and share web-based or personal electronic information for use in answering questions immediately as they arise (instead of having to postpone and thus delay decisions and otherwise impede the progress of the meeting).. Communication among individuals of varying languages and cultures by way of transparent translation mechanisms.Such advantages would make it preferred in some situations even when all parties are geographically co-located — perhaps meeting together in a VR conference room designed specifically for such interaction.

  5. Dave Pollard says:

    Gary: I’d like to see Ishii’s gaze stuff, since we have a guy that attends most of our meetings by videocon, and I find it very useful to gauge his body language — but then I’ve met him many times in person so I know how to ‘read’ him, so maybe there’s a difference. You’re right that the issue is significantly an ergonomic one, which is why we need a camera that is an extension of us, looking back at us just as someone we were conversing with would, ideally embedded in the screen so that the acreen-to-screen contact is as close as possible to face-to-face.I find forums really awkward and unintuitive, and I’ve tried quite a few of them, though your KnowledgeBoard looks like it works well.

  6. Dave Pollard says:

    Dina: Absolutely right — have you seen any studies that look at how teenagers communicate, since I’m going strictly on personal observation, and sometimes anecdotal evidence is misleading?Rob: I think you’re right about the bandwidth-need- proportional-to-complexity equation. You and Gary are two bloggers that I feel very close to because of the number of exchanges and the subject matter of them, but I still feel I don’t know you, and that the items further up the chart (esp. telephone) would go a long way to remedy that. I’ve done a few one-on-one videocons with people I’ve never met in person and they’re surprisingly powerful. Instant context? I love the blogging=high amps, email=high volts analogy. The effort and energy we put into blogs could kill us (from exhaustion most likely) which is something that e-mail could never do.

  7. Dave Pollard says:

    Shain: Wow, I forgot all about VR. The Raven and I had a discussion in the spring about this subject, since someone in Japan had developed a tool that combined webcam and mirrors to make someone appear invisible. We said wouldn’t it be great if you could hang a screen on your empty wall facing your neighbour’s house that showed Mount Whistler real-time with skiers appearing to come right into your house, or showed the living room of a relative living far away, with VR capability. It really could replace face-to-face with space-to-space, and real with surreal. Hope we live long enough to see it!

  8. ian dickson says:

    “It would be interesting to do this analysis from the recipient’s perspective, what they hope to get from the communication, and see the disconnects, but I’ll leave that to someone with a better sense of irony than mine.”I’m not sure about irony, but the whole psychological basis of my current project (commkit.com) is that recipients need to be in control of their incoming. It is an area that most people have ignored, and is the reason why so many communications and communication tools fail, esp in the community area.

  9. Dave, excellent and comprehensive analysis.Don’t you think we should hope for a unified XML-based standard micro-content exchange protocol, allowing for seamless integration of e-mail, text and voice messaging (through speech recognition), weblog and newsgroup posts and all the other media conveying messages?The real challenge is imho the multi-target publishing – one input, multiple outputs – that will make the evolution of weblogs much more concrete.Please have a look at a deeper analysis on http://www.zeligplace.com.Thanks a lot for this post.

  10. Dave,You have a habit for making things very clear. Thanks. J:L

  11. Yenayer says:

    I keep discovering great posts on your blog, Dave. Yes, I am a bit new to the blogsphere :-)

  12. Bob Beadle says:

    One of the best parts of the section on use of electronic media is the comments. Thanks!However, I’m not a believer in blogs, the way you are. I still have trouble with the idea that “blogs”- AS THEY ARE- is revolutionary…..Unless a blog becomes popular (‘successful’, lots of ‘hits’, comments, links, etc, commercial spinnoffs, etc), many seem like idle exercises. ‘Black holes’ to deposit ideas that will never be shared.Onanistic, futile. This describes most blogs, at least to me.Notice the gap between those who see a blog merely as a convenient’ place to store ideas, personal history, etc…….. and a place to share or more? It’s enormous.The argument that this somehow makes blogs “flexible”, is neither compelling, convincing, nor sincere. Maybe useful as an excuse for a failed publishing effort.Eventually multimedia and interactive technology will improve. Much more useful hybrids will come into their own and they will be major. But for now, it doesn’t matter how many million have been created, they look primitive, lack functionality (clunky), mostly a waste of time.There is way too much noise about blogging. I think we’re in its ‘kindergarten’ phase . Technology needs to catch up with popular enthusiasm for a new toy. Until now, it seems like advanced navel gazing, a plaything for would be publishers.Bob

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