Communication Evolution: Letters to 140 Characters

Then:  Once upon a time when it took up to three weeks to delivery a communication, people would write long, multi-page letters to one another.  These letters provided a series of intertwined thoughts and emotions that conveyed everything a person was thinking, feeling and wondering, all within a semi-coherent narrative. Over time, the means of communication have changed.  Partially based on technology innovation, but to address new problem spaces and an ever tightening integration of society,  the modes we as a society use continue to evolve.

Now:  In the dawning of the age of Twitter, we have moved from long, elaborative thoughts crafted for a single person to single-purpose statements broadcast to a collection of potentially interested people.  From hand-written letters, to telegrams, to the sedentary telephone, to faxes, emails, BBS systems, IMs, texting, blogs and now Twitter, the messages have gotten shorter and unidimensional.

Why the Trend? Complex systems always have many different strands one can point to as reasons for why something occurred.  Here’s my thoughts on some of these:

  • Commercials trained people to think in 15 minute chunks: With the advent of radio and television as the primary means of mass media consumption, generations of people learned to cope with massive interruptions in cognition.  Every fifteen minutes, our train of thought is jarringly interrupted with completely different sounds, pictures and ideas.  So much so that people developed coping mechanisms.  People had to prepare themselves for jarring breaks in logic.  Over time, people learned to either tune out completely, or pay attention in short bursts.  Attention Deficit Disorder is now a term we all understand.
  • Ever increasing societal integration leads to ever increasing rate of  communications:  As society has become more and more integrated, the number of communications the average person has per day has increased dramatically.   Our degree of connectedness with one another has increased exponentially – so much so that we can now feel “connected” with people we have never met who live in places we have never been.    We’ve gone from a time where most people were tightly connected to a select group of family and friends to where many people are loosely connected with hundreds, if not thousands of people.  Lots of loose connections require many more communications than a few tight connections.
  • Co-evolution of Man and His Tools has led to an ever increasing rate of technology innovation:  Building upon the  significant research into the impact of tools on hominid brain development, many now look at societal evolution as a co-evolution of man and his tools, in which the drive towards integration leads to an ever increasing abundance of new niches to be filled.  In a real sense, people have evolved to become natural-born cyborgs.  As we plug the net into our thinking processes, we look for more information, more breadth, and more context all at once.  From the perspective of the tools, the drive toward personal broadcasting leads to more diversity of options, which leads to more innovative tool development, and even more powerful communication choices. Technology innovation is a positive feedback cycle which continues to feed recently developed innovations back into the hopper as grist for yet more innovations.

These are just three potential strands.  What other factors do you see?

About The Author


30 Responses to “Communication Evolution: Letters to 140 Characters”

  1. S.Smith says:

    My emotional reaction is: sadness. Perhaps it’s a reactive bit…but I wonder what it’s like to have someone care enough to send a multi-page letter over the sea just for me?!

    Ah well…you can find me on at!

  2. NoelDickover says:

    S.Smith, that’s a great comment on the change from I call having a few tight connections to now having lots of loose connections. In this sense we were really a lot closer back then – so much so that we would await multi-page letters from folks far away.

  3. Len Sadauskas says:

    To what end are we co-evolving with this tool? How will it advance the survival of our species? My wife who just got her Kindle, views it as self-agrandizement, quantity of connections rather than quality of connections. Is the end game a society of shallow relationships that can be exploited by less “advanced” societies? If we were to determine that the end game is disaster, how could we turn back the clock? In a manner of speaking, unplugging the coockoo and putting it back into the clock.

  4. NoelDickover says:

    Hi Len, so the short answer is that similar to hominid evolution, where we weren’t evolving “to” anything per se, the same is true for societal evolution. Instead we are getting an infinite new set of niches that are being filled. In this sense there is no “end game,” just more change.

    That said, I think the interesting question is how this changes the enculturation process. How does a world full of an abundance of short, small messages change people? Clearly a good percentage of twitter users are doing the self-aggrandizement thing. The whole notion of personal broadcasting has certainly given those with a propensity to narcissism a far more interesting outlet. Personal issues become grist for discussion among social networks. Then again, I think you have to balance all this stuff against the enormous number of interesting and enriching changes these new messaging options have brought about. As an example, the sense of community which was lost over the course of the 20th century is returning in many ways.

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