Comm Dec Tree
Ton Zijlstra is on to something. He describes blogs as “personal presence portals”, and then goes on to describe the “awkwardness” that we feel when we go from ‘knowing’ someone through their blog to meeting them in person. His solution to that is simple: acknowledge the awkwardness explicitly in the first face-to-face conversation, and then work through it. Jon Husband chimes in with the observation that on-line ‘presence’ is still foreign to us, and we need to learn how to use it, much as at one point in our lives we first learn to use the telephone. So why is it that learning to use the telephone is childsplay, while learning to use blogs, especially when ‘enriched’ with Skype VoIP telephony, IM, wikis and webcams is so awkward, so hard?

It all comes down to the subject of Ton’s post: presence. Ton refers to this article that defines presence as a high-quality simulation of actual personal existence, high-quality implying socially rich, perceptually and socially realistic, transporting (in both senses of the word), immersing, and natural. Do blogs, with or without add-on multimedia tools, provide a high-quality simulation of the author’s existence, do they have presence?

To understand why this question is meaningless, we need to turn to the guru of media, Marshall McLuhan. In his landmark book Understanding Media, almost half a century ago, he explained the difference between media and tools. Communications media are place holders for content, for the message (“the medium is the message”). Communication tools are technologies that deliver the content, the message . In today’s electronic age, he said, the two have become blurred together. So my communication media decision tree from last year, reproduced above, while useful, is somewhat flawed, in that it mixes the two together.

But if we want to understand blogs, which are part media, part tools, we need to unblur these distinct characteristics. The best way to do this is to understand what, in McLuhan’s terminology, the constituent parts of blogs are extensions of. The telephone, a communication tool, is an extension of the ear and the voice. Radio is a communication tool, likewise an extension of the ear and voice, but the radio program is a communications medium, an extension of the programmer’s memory (and, if we tape it, an extension of our memory as well).

Blogs, like newspaper columns or news digests, are essentially communications media, extensions of our memories, place holders for our ideas and messages. They are not really extensions of our brains, because they capture, like a snapshot, our thinking at one point in time. Although we can try to make them conversational and describe our thought processes in a blog article, they do not, in their simplest form, allow the reader to truly engage our brains in real or close-to-real time.

Now, blogs also have two communication tools included: a publishing and subscription tool (RSS), which does transmit our messages (very well), and the rudimentary comments ‘thread’ functionality which, like a poor web forum, does allow some dialogue with the author and with other readers. The thread is a (lousy, and because it’s asynchronous, jerky) extension of our brains. To some extent the Internet itself is a communication tool that disseminates our blog comment; it is the blog’s ‘printing press’. And by that analogy, RSS is like the delivery truck that takes the newspaper to the subscriber’s house — both are communication tools, though RSS is clearly the superior delivery vehicle.

So what? Well, there is a huge amount of discussion about how to make blogs better, how to use them in business, and what their future is, none of which makes the essential distinction between their role and value as communication media and their role and value as communication tools.

I would argue that the critical functionality of blogs, both in personal and business use, is as a personal communications medium i.e. a storage space for everything of consequence in our memories, and everything of consequence in that other extension of our memory, the filing cabinet (and its electronic analogue, the ‘My Documents’ folder). As I’ve said in my posts on the future of blogs and in my future state visions, I think blogs will eventually (and properly) morph into purer, simpler versions of this one critical functionality — they will become the proxies, the substitutes for our memories, for use by friends and business contacts when we’re busy or away from the high-presence communication tools, by vendors to ascertain our need for their offerings, and by ourselves as a place to organize, store and access our own thoughts and memories, thus freeing up more of our real memories for new ideas and perceptions. There have been some interesting articles lately by people who say that making and keeping huge numbers of dynamic lists and notes, instead of trying to keep all that in our memories, we can actually enrich our brain’s power, our intellectual effectiveness and even our intelligence by ‘freeing up memory and brain CPU’. Next-generation blogs could be perfect for that, not only freeing up our memories but also allowing others access to our ideas and learnings.

So to that limited extent, blogs have presence — they can be excellent simulations, surrogates, proxies for our personal memories. But what if we need more context to be able to properly understand the message, or effectively use or build on the content of this virtual memory? Then we need high-quality, high-presence communication tools, not communication media. We are rapidly moving towards a convergence of several ‘online’ communication tools: telephony, e-mail, IM, and potentially voice-mail and videoconferencing. Right now, the content, the stored messages of these various tools are unintegrated, but voice recognition and transcription is quickly improving and we will soon be able to ‘record’ conversations in any of these media in one simple, intuitive way, and with Simple Virtual Presence we will also have a simple intuitive way to connect with people using any or all of these media. Then we’ll need a ‘bridge’ to allow each of the participants in a conference to see anything in the blog/virtual memory of any of the participants.

Until that day arrives, blogs get high marks as a communication medium, but barely a passing grade as communication tools. If the technology developers understand the distinction, and start building tools that are properly engineered for simple, seamless connectivity, then one day the blurring won’t matter, and the integration between media and tools will be complete.

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  1. Rob Paterson says:

    Morning DaveI just wanted to comment on the “awkwardness” of meeting face to face after a blogging relationship had started. I recall that I was quite nervous meeting you and in fact all whom I had met blogging first. Your post has got me to asking why?My first impression is that it is as if each of us has seen the other through a window without our clothes on. A sense of embarrassment that we know more than we should? My second thought is that we have met in person because, there was click in spirit – so the meeting is the proof or not of this feeling – has to be some pressure.So here comes the meat. Maybe there is a Bell curve in relationships. The huge bulge in the middle are the vast majority whom we are indifferent to. On the left hand wing those few who have parts of us that we like or want = an empathic liking. On the right those who have the parts of us that we dislike or fear the most – those that we instantly dislike.Maybe blogs are a way of opening up this empathic channel where all relationships really exist. So less a “communication” tool as a window into the other as self

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