A communication revolution

19 May 2019

They say love makes the world go round. And it’s true. When you love and feel loved, everything seems brighter and better. But saying it’s just love that we all need isn’t the whole picture – there’s something else that is essential to a happy and fulfilled life.

It’s a need that runs deep in the human psyche. Children crave it and adults need it – without it we’re all a little bit poorer.

I’m talking about connection.

Ask any parent and they’ll tell you, that from the moment they are born, children reach out to connect. First with cries and gurgles, and then with words and sentences. They want to chat, to recount the minutia of their day; to tell stories, ask questions, and discuss ideas.

It is through connection that we learn about our place in the world. Feel loved. Find out what we’re good at. Make friends. Mark Zuckerberg has become one of the richest people in the world by building a platform that taps into our need to connect.

But in our multi-media, app-filled, device-loaded world, I think there’s a problem. Many of the ways we connect with each other are not as satisfying as they could be. And I think there are three main reasons for this:

Speed, space and size.

Speed

Speed is built into our social media platforms. They’re designed to make us react quickly. Sometimes instantly. We shoot from the hip, get cross and shout back. We say things we’d never say in real life because we don’t give ourselves the time to think, to breathe.

Writing by hand (on the other hand) is a bit like walking – it’s activity at a human speed. It allows us space to think, to form the words. Because it’s slow, you actually end up thinking while you write.

Writing at a human speed gives you time to form your thoughts. To think about what you really want to say. As a result, we’re almost certainly more honest, more authentic.

Space

I’ve always felt reading a book is fundamentally more enjoyable and more immersive than reading the same words on a screen. But I’ve never been able to put my finger on exactly why. That was until I read an amazing article by a chap called Graig Mod in Offscreen magazine (you can read the article here) who I think managed to hit the nail on the head. He reckons it’s all to do with the fact that books have edges.

Edges? (What is this guy on about?!)

Yes, edges.

What he means is that when you get to the end of a page, or to the end of a book, it stops. There’s nothing else. Nothing to immediately draw your attention away. No ‘next article’. No emails to answer. No FB posts to comment on. It just stops.

And weirdly, this is one of the things that gives a book its immense strength. It’s what makes books so pleasurable.

A book is a thing on it’s own. It has it’s own space. All by itself. You read it, take it in, and (if it’s a really good book) it becomes a part of you. But for it to do that, it has to have the space to work it’s magic. If you read a page and then check a FB post, and then another page and play a game, it doesn’t work so well.

And so it is, I reckon, with the letter. In today’s ultra-connected, always-on digital world, a letter is a little oasis of calm in a sea of noise. To be read, enjoyed, absorbed. And re-read. (Who re-reads emails?)

A little bit of space, just for you, written just for you, by a friend.

Size

Communicating today (on the platforms we all use) is mostly about broadcasting. FB posts to all your friends. WhatsApp messages to the group. Twitter posts to the world. We’ve all become little broadcasters. Telling everyone what we’re up to, what we think, what we wish for.

And somehow, in switching from one-to-one connection to mass-media, we’ve lost a bit of ourselves. What could be an interesting conversation between friends runs the danger of becoming ‘over-sharing’ when we tell everyone in our group.

A hand-written letter on the other hand is classic narrow-casting. Connecting with one special person.

I was reading a second World War story to my daughter the other night, and in it there was a letter a boy wrote to his friend on the front. It consisted of nothing beyond what he had done that day. No fancy words. No shared memories or deep emotion. Just that he had gone to see his friend’s sister and his friend’s horse, and that both were doing well. And it struck me, that if you had read that on a FB post, it would come across as utterly boring. But in that letter, to his friend, it was just what he needed to hear. It was comfort and memories to a young boy in the war.

That’s the difference between narrowcasting and broadcasting. Broadcast mode is a blunt instrument, but narrowcasting works because you’re communicating with one person, about stuff you’re both interested in. An account of a funny incident involving a lost hamster will be very amusing to a friend who knows your track record of mislaid hamsters, but probably not funny at all to someone who doesn’t know you well.

So. Go slow, carve out space, and connect one-to-one. Re-discover the joys of personal communication. And savour the moments they bring.

John Morse-Brown
May 2019

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