Four characteristics of digital communication… and their implications

I chuckled to myself earlier this week. An old friend is getting married later in the summer and a few of the old crowd were stoking the embers of memory in an attempt to generate some decent tales for the best man. I think there’s enough material for several speeches. The best story I’d forgotten – someone once took the groom’s mobile and swapped the numbers of his girlfriend and ex-girlfriend… Text message havoc created in the space of a few hours. Ouch.  

University hi-jinks aside, this incident highlights one of the key characteristics of digital communication – that of permanence. Spoken words fade in our memory, no matter how jagged. The written word lingers. This should have serious implications for how we communicate, but in practice most of us don’t really give the indelibility of digital communication a second thought. Why should you when all you do is surf the web, send emails at work and post the odd Facebook comment?

The brilliant Danah Boyd of the University of California observed four central characteristics of digital communication in a paper which explores young people’s use of social networking sites. These are:

  • Persistence (acts are recorded for posterity);
  • Search-ability (it is possible to find a specific individual in a few ‘keystrokes’);
  • Replicability (it is possible to copy content);
  • Invisible audiences (it is impossible to know who will come across representations of you online).

For me persistence is the most fundamental aspect of digital communication. I am interested in how technology affects human behaviour, especially the unintended consequences. In the era where most of us carry a mobile with a camera and an internet connection, momentary lapses in our behaviour can be captured for and shared instantly. This is a fundamental change. Victor Mayer-Schonberger, in his book Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in a Digital Age, suggests permanence might affect our identity. How is the human virtue of forgiveness affected if our transgressions are just a click away for the rest of time? Will our behaviour become inhibited as a result?

Will we think twice before leaving our mobiles on the pub table?

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About Simon Shaw

I'm a Director at a communications agency. I'm interested in marketing, market research & consumer psychology. The views expressed are not necessarily those of my employer.
This entry was posted in Consumer Psychology, Marketing and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Four characteristics of digital communication… and their implications

  1. AM says:

    I agree, this is definitely a phenomenon that is increasing. People’s mobiles left out for their friends to log into Facebook (with their saved passwords) and post silly (actually sometimes quite offensive, from what I’ve seen!) status updates or comments. It’s not just friends to watch out for, being a little bit merry can seem the perfect time to post what you’re currently doing / thinking for all your friends (and family!) to see over a social network.

    Will it take a while for us to modify our behaviour as a society, in response? …or will we embrace it? (potentially turning ‘us English’ into a nation that cringes less at our own behaviour?)

    Interesting.

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