Evaluating Communication Channels

I’ve been reading a lot lately about the communication channels people leverage to stay in touch with each other. A particularly engaging series of articles begins with panic about the results of the 2004 General Social Survey (GSS): As McPherson, Smith-Lovin, and Brashears write, the modal respondent reports having no confident with whom they “discuss important matters.” That is down from a modal response of 3 in 1985.

Perhaps the most amusing response comes from Claude Fischer, who seems to think technical or human error is the most likely culprit of the precipitous drop – a claim he validates convincingly by showing that the 2004 GSS is poorly aligned with other relevant data.

But a broader line of inquiry is raised by these findings: just what does it mean to “discuss important matters” and how has our collective understanding of that question changed?

McPherson et al argue that the decrease in confidants could in fact be an artifact of modern life:    if people interpret “discuss” as requiring face-to-face interaction, and they have replaced such modes with phone or internet communication, they may find themselves no “discussing,” per se.

There is some reason to doubt this interpretation – most notably the work of Baym, Zhang, and Lin which finds that among college students in 2004, “the internet was used nearly as often as the telephone, however, face-to-face communication was far more frequent.”

Communication, however, has changed dramatically even since 2004. A senior in college then, I was a relatively late adopter and had only had my own cell phone – a flip phone, of course – for 2 years. I had a big, clunky desktop computer and I chatted with my classmate over AIM. I wasn’t on Facebook – it wasn’t yet really a thing – and I personally didn’t use MySpace or LiveJournal. Those sites didn’t seem to be as much about keeping in touch as about broadcasting yourself. I was 19 years old and I barely knew who my self was.

Looking back now, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if most of my conversations were face-to-face. While my phone and the internet provided some shortcuts and enhancements – face to face was the only way to really have a conversation.

Now I Snapchat my nieces every morning.

Personally, I would interpret the phrase “discuss” more broadly; I discuss important matter with people over the internet all the time. But what’s more interesting in this discussion is the arguably old-fashioned reticence to let go of face-to-face as being the only meaningful mode of communication.

But that, I think, undersells the richness of communication that is possible today – and it under appreciate’s people’s ability to leverage those communication channels.

It is easy, I suppose, to roll one’s eyes and claim that kids these days don’t know what it really means to have a conversation – but I think that is too much an oversimplification; and doesn’t give nearly enough credit to young people who want to communication, who are able to communicate, and who are fully capable of leveraging new channels and technology to discuss important matters in ways that were simply not possible before.

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