Do more, be better

Contextual Communication

by Harry on 19 October 2011, filed under Working It Out

There’s something very respectful about the practice of letter writing – the way you give all of your attention and energy to communicate with someone who isn’t there to respond. And there’s something charming about the way, in days gone by, people would hand-write a complete account of their life at any given time – events, news, plans and matters of the heart.

Jumping forward to present day, communication for most people rarely involves anything like the traditional letter. While this is sad in some ways, there has been good reason for the change. For a start, there’s a lot more going on than in a hamlet in 1930s Southern England. No matter how progressive or scandalous that small community may have been, it wouldn’t come close to matching the sheer volume of activity in people’s lives today.

The complexity of modern life presents a very interesting challenge. How do you keep others informed about everything you’ve got going on? If you tried writing letters, in the old fashioned sense, it would be a ridiculously onerous task. There’s also the problem that letters have no provision for grouping or context or sharing the same message with people in different places. Even email struggles as a medium. Unless you have a very precise filing and tagging structure you waste time trawling to find a particular comment. And there is that constant fear that an important message may somehow be lost or overlooked.

The idea of contextual communication has really grown with the advent of Web 2.0 and more recently the Social Networking boom. Putting comments beneath a blog post or against a status update allows the reader to digest them in a relevant environment just moments after they’ve been written. The threading of messages together to form meaningful discussions, and the ability to choose who you include and exclude, has enabled communities to become engaged and active in ways that never used to happen.

When my friend Dougal renovated his house a few years ago he walked around with little yellow post-it notes and stuck them on window sills, skirting boards, cupboard doors – anywhere that need to be fixed or touched up by the painters. If he’d written all of his notes down in a single list, it would have been so much harder for the painters to work out where he wanted the work to be done.

The only shortcoming of placing communication in context is it can be difficult to review all communications together in one place, the way you can with a notebook or your email inbox. Innovations like the Facebook newsfeed have gone some way to addressing this, but software designers are going to have to get even smarter as there are still difficulties in tracking the thoughts and ideas that come from a single person.

I still write letters occasionally and I hope the art form never dies. Finding the right pen and right stationary is all part of the ritual. Just think of the last time you received a hand written letter from overseas, scrawled on beautiful paper and squeezed into an envelope decorated with ornate stamps. Beats a little red Facebook notification any day!

Something you want to say?

If you'd like to drop us a line about this blog post - or about anything at all - fill in the form below. This isn't a public comments board, so all correspondence will remain private (unless we both agree otherwise!)