Now, I'm not actually a subscriber to the theory that traditional media is dead to be replaced completely by digital and social media. Newspapers may be drying up while social media is ramping up but things are never as black and white as they may seem they'll be. But, I ran across this Mad Avenue Blues video on GuruOfNew and thought it worth sharing with you.
Enjoy the video.
Part 1: One of the reasons I enjoy creating software is that I'm fascinated by researching and understanding users of the technology we create. I sometimes refer to myself as a software anthropologist. That's part of why I also enjoy user interface design. So, enough about me… lets get on to the topic.
Over time, I've noticed how the form of communications we use is generational. By that I mean as time marches on, we create new ways of communicating and that tends to be the form users of that generation stick with. Some make the transition to the next generation, some have a foot in both camps, and others stick with what they've been comfortable with.
When I first started my career, business people communicated very differently than they do today. Besides the phone, communication was written, either through memos or reports, or personal letters between friends and family. There were no cell phones yet, and desktop computers were just beginning to make their way onto desktops. Yes, I'm really dating myself here.
But how I communicated was a bit different, a hybrid actually. I was a computer science student in college and had a side business writing medical software for the Apple II. I was exploring online bulletin boards and using word processing software (that's what we called it back then) to create my content, but few were doing this when I started creating software at the bank where I worked. Very soon after that, I was setting up my first LANs and starting to deploy email servers and email clients, something else that was also very new to the PCs in businesses where I worked.
So, with that as a starting point, I noticed that I was different from those around me in the bank and in the IT department. Everyone lived by pen, paper or a typewriter, while I was always on a computer. And over time I observed how our communication patterns tend to change with new generation of users and stay the same for others.
Here's how I break down the generations of communications and how users of that generation create and consume content.
Non-computer – short hand, dictation, pen and typewriter. I collapse all of these forms together because they don't involve the use of a computer, matter of fact they largely predate computers. Content was handwritten or created verbally and either written down in shorthand or recorded into a Dictaphone type device, and then transferred via typewriter into written form. This is the generation my parents and grandparents grew up in. My grandmother was well known at the local hospital for her typing speed and accuracy at deciphering and spelling medical jargon dictated by doctors. That couldn't have been easy. Other than the use of the phone, all of our communications were written. (You could go back in history and talk about typeset, printing press and when everything was handwritten, but I'm not going there in this blog post.)
Word processing. When I officially joined the workforce (after college), word processing was making it's way through businesses. This was the Wang word processor era, specialized hardware and software just for word processing. I was using PC software for word processing, like ScreenWriter II (Apple II), MacWrite (Mac), WordPerfect, WordStar and eventually Microsoft Word (PC). I really only saw the tail end of dedicated word processor generation, as it was pretty short-lived from my experience. I recall on the first development project I worked how many people created content by writing it on yellow pads, and then the word processing pool (formerly typewriter operators) transferred it to typed pages. This was an odd period for me because I was using my own word processing software to create content and either printing it on my own printer or handing it over to the word processing pool to retype. (Go figure.) As computers moved onto the desktop, thanks largely to VisiCalc and Lotus 123, word processing shifted to the desktop as well. Understand that ultimately what we're talking about here is content that's only consumed once it's printed. Creation of content is still written but it's being translated to the computer rather than being created at the computer.
Email. I'm largely of the email generation. I remember setting up one of the first LAN-based email servers in EDS where I worked. The email software was InterMail and it ran on the Mac (and I believe later became part of ccMail.) Most in the email generation send, receive and consume content via email while they are at their computer. They do it themselves. (This probably sounds like no big deal to you because that's likely how you work and communicate.) An interesting side effect is that non-computer and word processing generations typically didn't fully make the transition to email. I remember countless managers and executives who had their assistants print out their email for them, write comments and responses on the printed page for their assistants to type up and reply back to the sender. That seems as uncomfortable to me as having someone act as a mediator between myself and a caller on the phone, but for those of the written communication generation, computers, mice, keyboards and email programs seem just as foreign or strange.
Instant Messaging (IM). A relatively collapsed generation are IM users. I say collapsed in that IM tends to be an extension of email users, not really a generation in and of itself. It doesn't replace email, but gives instant communications to individuals and groups. The audience of people who you IM is usually pretty small, such as co-workers in your immediate workgroup, some family members and friends. Except for a relatively few users on the extreme, I don't see this as a way an entire generation changed their communication patterns, giving up email in place of IM.
Texting. My kids are of the texting generation. They rarely use email (mostly to communicate with me) and they don't use email to communicate amongst their friends and social groups. They text, and they text a lot. They see email as something Dad does, but not them, though they use email for other purposes such as their school email account where information is delivered to them via email. Both my kids and I are hybrids, but at different extremes. I text, but use much more email while my kids' generation text and use a little bit of email. We're at that crossover point in this transition from email to texting in a variety of forms as we'll see in a moment. People like myself who have adopted texting will better communicate with the next generation and may transition there themselves (I hope I do), and those who haven't will still require their audience cross back and forth between their preferred method and previous generation's methods.
Twitter and social networking. Clearly social media, with the exception of blogging, is designed around the same types of short messages we've seen from the texting generation. But it's different in that social networking can reach one person (such as with a direct tweet or wall-to-wall message) and also go out to many within our social networks, both close friends and family or more distant observers. An interesting aspect of social media is how it has quickly crossed multiple generations. While mySpace was primarily a youth and music oriented community, Facebook is used by a much broader spectrum of age groups. Twitter is rapidly making its way into businesses as a new medium for reaching their audiences, but we're still largely in that early adoption phase.
One of the things I haven't addressed yet is mobile communications, i.e. cell phones. Clearly mobile technologies have enabled options like texting, while twitter, IM and email communications can be performed with and without cell phones. I won't go into mobile communications any deeper here as I think I could write a very similar blog post about how mobile communications has shifted from one land line phone per home to wide spread use of mobile phones and to a lesser degree SmartPhones.
Okay, that's the breakdown. In Part 2 of this blog post I'll discuss how thinking about communications in this generational context is important and how it influences our products, IT systems and methods of reaching customers and communities.