Monotone: Mark Zuckerberg’s Misunderstanding of Communication
At the beginning of this week the techblogs buzzed with excitement at the the launch of Facebook’s messaging system. TechCrunch described it as a ‘Gmail killer’. Expectation was high for something that would make communication easier; reduce the complications of the current system. The ensuing product was indeed a revamped messaging system, including displaying your conversation history with a friend in one single page, whether it was through chat, text or email. The emphasis is on simplicity.
Zuckerberg, who is as bad a public speaker as he is a web developer, delivered an overview of the new system and its approach to communication. He described listening to a group of teenagers talk about email, and how it is too slow, too formal. It reminded him of conversations he had with his own parents about the superiority of email to the traditi onal hard format. The speed differential between sending a letter and an email is significant, measured in a couple of days. In comparison the slowness of email is in the extraneous details of finding your intended recipients email address, choosing a subject line and the formal embellishments that you use: ‘Hello’, ‘How are you?’, ‘Goodbye’, ‘Love You’, etc. Concepts and traditions inherited from letters.
This is where I disagree with Mr. Zuckerberg. What is too slow, the system or the users? Email is slower because it requires thought, which is often a good thing. Those formal devices are part of centuries and centuries of the evolution of written communication. Our fractured online messaging system provides a range of platforms that allow subtly different shades of connotation. These can be divided into private systems, where you communicate with a person or a group within a private environment, and public systems where communication is hurle d into a social ether. The private systems are: email, instant message and text message. If we apply traditional terms email is a letter, IM a written conversation and text message a note. These are accompanied by a range of public systems, where the user broadcasts their message to an audience, such as Facebook and Twitter. The public systems often induce use of the private system, or a hybrid of the two such as a Facebook wall post or a Twitter ‘at’.
Facebook’s new messaging system subsumes the variety of conversations into one single stream, which although may increase ease loses much of the art of written communication. We use alternate forms of communication for different reasons, and that separation is important. I take great pleasure in receiving a lengthy email from somebody, but I do not want that mixed in with my banal communications trying to figure out where I can find the damn bar.
Writing is segregated, divid ed betwe en novels, novellas, short stories, poetry, drama, essays, journals, letters and more, with each section breaking down into even finer categorisation. Our conversations are no different, fulfilling different necessities. Blurring these together loses a great deal of the complexity of our communications. It is monotone.