The radical enabler: Many to Many Communication

What’s different about today’s internet and technology – what we’re calling social media?

Many to many communication. For the first time in human history, people can converse en mass without being in the same room. The implications are many and highly varied, and this is why people have such trouble defining the terms.

We’ve moved from letters to Newspapers, Magazines and  telephone. Modern one way media like television and radio emerged. New social media tools are truly radical in that they enable multi-way communication that is so different from what precedes it, that we don’t really even have words to describe it.

“Conversation” is the best, really the only, word we have to describe this, because the only precedent for it is social events of relatively small groups of people meeting face to face. But the term is overtaxed. Appropriate in many circumstances, “conversation” does not quite get to the heart of issues like ambient awareness, group filtering, and the strange patterns of the spread of memes, ideas and information that feel like we can almost grasp them, but haven’t yet.

David Armano and the Dachis Group have started defining the terms, if not completely yet the dynamics of this in an exciting way that promises to be a useful framework for discussion. I’ve written on the various types of collaboration that people seem to struggle to articulate (though I lack Armano’s considerable skill at illustration).

We also lack words for multi-modal communication. If i want to invite someone to call/email/IM/Tweet/Social message me in the form that is most convenient, the only word I have is “ping” – an obscure term that I got from old unix guys, who got it from even older radar operators.

This strangely, but radically new form of mainstream many-to-many communication is the unique thing that social media enables, and its no surprise that we’re still grappling with its implications. We’re still figuring out what to call it.

Lawrence Lessig gives a breathtaking review of what “read-write web” means (if you haven’t watched this yet, you really should), but I think there are other basic issues that many-to-many unearths:

– We’re not completely sure how to listen. We use each other as filters, but we’re still working this out.

– We’re still working on how to engage. Best practices exist and are developing, but we’re in early stages. So what’s my point here. As always they are several.

1. We are just beginning to unpack the value of many to many, and will be doing so for the next decade or more.

2. We need more and better vocabulary to describe what we have and what we want. if we can’t discuss it, we can’t easily get it.

3. Along the way we will be articulating, demonstrating and leveraging what many of us already sense in our guts about the many ways information and insight travel from mind to mind. This hints at the astonishing power to truly connect minds, harness enthusiasm and make nearly all human endeavor more productive and efficient.

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