Communication Chaos!

Have you noticed that the more means of communications we have, it appears as though we might be communicating less? To illustrate the problem, I created a list of my communication patterns.

Let’s begin with the devices I use:

  1. My mobile phone – an iPhone – on me all the time. Charged at night on my bedside, but silent and on my belt all day. It’s connected to the Internet but only when I am traveling domestically (otherwise, it’s occasionally connected on WiFi). Loaded with over 200 apps, including Mail, Skype, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Viber and many more communication apps. The phone has a voice mail that I check rarely – about once a month!
  2. Roaming phone – I travel a lot, and no matter where I go, I carry a local phone for that geography. It mostly doesn’t have a data plan and just serves for voice phone calls. This phone sometimes has a voice mail as well.
  3. My tablet – an iPad – also with a bunch of communication apps such as Mail, Skype, Twitter, and more.
  4. My laptop – with Skype, email clients (Mail and Outlook), and Microsoft Communicator.
  5. My home desktop computer – running Skype and Twitter apps all the time.
  6. My landline phone – home number for voice, an answering machine, and a fax.
  7. All-in-one printer/fax/scanner – connected to my home line.

Now let’s look at the various means I use to communicate:

  1. Voice calls on all devices, my mobile phone, roaming phone, landline, and Skype.
  2. Skype – running on almost all my devices, able to connect with me whenever I’m online – either with instant messaging or voice/video.
  3. SMS text messaging on my mobile phone.
  4. Email – I have at least 6 different email addresses, of which I check 4 quite regularly. Each has a different purpose.
  5. Twitter – I’m quite active on Twitter, and use it mostly for loose and serendipitous relationships, but people reach me through direct messages or mentioning me and I engage.
  6. Facebook – mostly for friends and family members.
  7. LinkedIn – mostly for business contacts.
  8. Microsoft Communicator – when I want to connect to business contacts in the company.
  9. Comments on my blog – I read each of these and respond.
  10. Fax – either at home or on eFax where I have a number for web-based faxing.
  11. Google Voice – it dials many of my telephone numbers in sequence. But its prime utility is that it’s a web-accessible voice mail service, as it most often doesn’t really get a hold of me at the end. By the time it gets to the device I’m on at that moment in time, the caller already gives up.

I barely ever check voice mail and it’s probably the least effective way to get my attention. I don’t even check my home answering machine…

So, you might say that I’m rather well connected. Or am I?

I find it very tough to reach some people and some people find it difficult to get a hold of me for any meaningful communication – sometimes scheduling them weeks, if not months, in advance.

Am I the only one that’s well connected? Hardly!

Talking to many people and observing many people, my situation isn’t very different than most, actually.

Am I the only one with this chaos? Absolutely not!

I suspect most of you reading this have a similar chaos.

Depending on who you are and what you do, you have a different mix, but a mix it is. Folks younger than mid twenties might not use email as much as I, if at all. However, they would perhaps have ooVoo and ICQ running in parallel to Skype and Facebook. They’d be heavy users of SMS and Facebook chat and messages and wall posts or BBM and rely more heavily on mobile phones. Others would rely more heavily on voice communications. Yet others would be extremely heavy users of Skype or SMS or in-game chat or voice conferencing.

Not only are we using multiple devices and multiple means of communications, we often use them concurrently. It’s not always clear to us which means and access points of communication we should use. For instance, when I want to get a hold of someone, I might try 4-5 different approaches, and more often than not, much of the effort is merely the “handshake” and coordination to communicate rather than any meaningful communication. We don’t often consider how time consuming and inefficient all these handshake/coordination “communications” really are.

It might get worse. As Jacob Ner-David points out in his recent blog post, many of these written forms of communication sometime get misinterpreted and might create tension and conflict.  Most meaningful dialog and exchange of ideas really requires a dialog or conversation that cannot happen without voice, video, or even face-to-face communication. That’s why physical meetings, conferences, parties, and many other events are invaluable and yet irreplaceable as human-to-human interactions.

So where is all this going?

Well, changes in these communication patterns take years. If you are old enough, you would recall that fax was a very significant form of communication that has since lost its prominence. Nevertheless, it is still with us. So new devices and means of communication enter more rapidly than ever (e.g. the iPad) but take a long time to leave us thereafter. So I expect we’ll see more means to communicate before we’ll see less. And most will be additive. Yet this chaos cannot continue to grow forever. It just doesn’t serve us well enough any longer. I therefore envision that some of this chaos will be resolved over time by innovators. It simply doesn’t make sense the way things are going. I believe that whoever solves this problem will do no less than help make the world a better place by facilitating better, richer, and more friction-free communication between people. Replacing “handshakes” with “communication” in the true sense of the word.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that all use of these capabilities to communicate are the same. Sometimes, use of these tools might be considered “pseudo-communication”. For example, young people might use public instant messaging and wall messages rather than more direct communications because they want to appear cool, sexy, or even fake. Also, there’s a significant difference between business and personal communications.

What is your most annoying aspect of this communication chaos?


20 thoughts on “Communication Chaos!”

  1. Why wouldn’t you check voicemail? It seems like such an efficient method of communication — esp. since it doesn’t set up barriers for the person trying to reach you. There’s so much talk about communication being a “two-way street” these days that I’m shocked you would prohibit people from reaching you using this very standard, very normal medium.

    If you don’t want to listen to your messages, get the google app that turns them into text messages!

  2. nice one.. This is what i was discussing with some old friends yesterday evening.. You clarified it more using more technical examples..
    Actually we all feel many times that having so many devices for communication we are still not in touch with many ppl which matters most in our life.

  3. The worst part is how evil marketing has made people pay separately for “text” when they all have data plans anyway.

    I think you’re misinterpreting the public message medium – while some of it is status related, it also has genuine social value that direct communications do not have, a platform for smalltalk and for sniffing each other out that is expanded in time and place compared to traditional methods.

    Here’s a future vision for you – multiple communication profiles set up by google, facebook, or some other similar entity that are available to various groups. E.g. “Tal Social”, “Tal Family”, “Tal Professional”, “Tal Emergency”. These will know about all your communication devices and will use them as appropriate, and you can control your availability to each one of them from your mobile devices. This way you can make “Tal Professional” go to voicemail while “Tal Family” rings your land or mobile or goes to text. (Of course even Google will realize you need some anonymous profiles as well, although I’m not sure Facebook can come to terms with that.)

    p.s. Having a land line is getting pretty quaint around here. I haven’t had one in nearly 8 years but I do have a vonage router that I take with me when I travel (my “office” number), google voice that I hide my smartphones behind, and whenever someone asks me to send a fax I just give them a really confused look. (I knew the fax/scanner business was dead the first time a job candidate sent us copies of his travel expense receipts made using his phone…)

  4. Probably the Indians were aware of this chaos. Hence they created the ancient Vedic tradition of enlightenment in India. This knowledge has been handed down by Vedic masters from generation to generation for thousands of years.

    About 50 years ago, Maharishi — the representative in our age of the Vedic tradition — introduced Transcendental Meditation (TM) to the world, restoring the knowledge and experience of higher states of consciousness at this critical time for humanity. These practices keep the mind engaged in some way, for example, by focusing on an object or on something like your breath. Others keep us aware of thoughts, or images. These practices keep the mind active in some way on the surface thinking level.

    TM allows the mind to simply, naturally and effortlessly transcend thinking and to experience a deep state of restfully alert consciousness. The holistic benefits that have been found to result from the practice of the TM technique are the automatic result of this unique experience.

    This is the most silent and peaceful level of consciousness — your innermost Self which all the communication gizmos have failed to address!

    Please note: All details above are from

  5. Hi Tal, indeed telefax has served as a central business communication channel back in the ’80s and ’90s, and is still to some extent here, but other channels have (thankfully) ceased to exist, except as a sport or cultural activity: pigeons, teleprinter, and morse-code to name a few.
    I totally agree with you on voicemail. I have a voicemail at the office, with messages waiting as long as 40 days or more – I prefer to ignore the red message light. For this is one channel too many.
    On an anecdotal note: there is no real substitute to face-to-face meetings. However I do have several clients with which I am having a bi-weekly meeting every two months. Everytime we meet they value my feedback (I hope they are honest…), but in most cases they are too busy having teleconferences with 10-25 other participants and very little effectiveness.
    When will order emerge out of chaos? I agree with Ori – when a service will become available that will colllate multiple channels according to context, now this will be a refreshing change. I want to have one point of contact – phone#, twitter, whatever, as long as it will help me communicate with the right people at the right time. Recall LBS from your previous post? wouldn’t it be cool that your $phone will help you filter and divert $incoming-calls according to where you are and what you’re doing?

  6. Resonant, Tal, resonant…
    What do you think of Facebook’s play to try to unify some of this? imo, the answer (and hopefully not just another access point) in the future may be a kind of layered approach that Ori suggests above. You give permissions based on relationships and context. We have a way to go though. Thanks for a pretty honest portrayal of what a lot of us experience regularly!

  7. I save some of the “chaos” by having Skype phone number. my home phone number is Skype, so when people are calling me home I am answering via Skype phone (and can use my iPhone as additional handset), when I am out, if the Skype app is on on my iPhone, it rings and I can answer. I am calling all the USA numbers and many countries landline for $10 a month. I also have Skype togo number which allows me to make international calls for the same $10 when I am on the road and listen to my home VM’s. I can use the skype number from my pc anywhwre in the world calling people and they get my home number caller ID.

  8. Hi Tal,
    Very descriptive summary or your self reflection on your communication status – I haven’t done mine – perhaps to avoid the perplexity of similar findings at a lower gadget list.

    Sriganesh and Ori, may converge to something common. Simplicity (or a second argument at the end).
    Human life (in the communication aspects) perhaps was simpler before news papers, wave radio, telephone, TV, internet and social networks up to day.

    What I mean, we rapidly (few generations) have forced our brains from minimal but valuable information -all you can have, not much – then humans could process, imagine and correlate information at a slower pace, comment and have argumentation about that information.

    Then today we are bombarded with good and irrelevant data, so we loose the opportunity to filter properly that into valuable information. (at least not as efficiently)

    Add the complexity of interfaces …
    Evolved from a rotary phone and a TV with ch 3-4 to dissimilar Users interfaces.
    Now we spend more brain cycles on dealing with which app do I need to use, which loggin/pswd to use, which button to click for certain action and which device to use before we get the point of the information we are looking.

    For example, I am not a texting person – and I can’t imagine a kid sending 200 text per day or more…and what really value you get from that

    Another view…
    – Maybe I am overestimating the power the human brain to overcome this communication chaos, and only the young kids that were born during the internet explosion will have their neurons properly trained. Just take for example 30 years ago, most people had and admin to type your memos and the computer generation have no problem siting at a keyboard.

    Perhaps 15 years from now, things are not better on the “communications chaos” but grown up kids will look to us and ask – what do you mean by comm chaos? We will be seen as those who did not make it through the typewriter/PC.

  9. Hello Tal,

    It was interesting to read about the chaos and how true it is. I agree with you on the fact that more of the “handshake” communication needs to be reduced. Also, people have miused the wall on Facebook or twitter by posting extremely silly and unimportant information even if it is on a personal way of communication. I would never be bothered to know what a person had in lunch or dinner.

    Quite impressed with your way of organising the blog and making it appear such clean and clear. That’s what we can say to be good communication with no chaos at all. 🙂


  10. The sad part is already in the beginning. You’re really using the apple phone?
    This stupid company has lost the PC market, yet that wasn’t big enough a failure to make the error clear to them, and they repeat their mistakes. Their innovation and marketing can carry them for a while, but they are doomed. These control freaks think they can compete when they do everything themselves, including the regulation of the applications.
    Now, their upcoming collapse is one thing. I don’t understand how you, as a technology enthusiast, cooperate with a system that tries to control the consumers and tell them what applications they are allowed to write or use on the hardware that they own. In my eyes its just plain immoral.

  11. Hi Tal!

    The average person of my generation (50-60) would never be able to handle the amount of communication devices and types you have. We rather prefer to keep it simple (smartphone, tablet, PC), and for the most part prefer voicemail. In the other hand my son s generation (20-30) hate voicemail and loves SMS. They have smartphones and tablets full of Apps, and a high powered PC to do the heavy work. They also do not have a line line.

    Looking at the future I very much like Ori s vision. It would be great to have control of every electronic communication media you have from a single contact point a la intelligent homes where you can light the fireplace, close the drapes, turn on the TV, etc. from one unified remote control.

    Whenever you are in the Miami area, lets plan to play some darts.

  12. I think these communication facades, should they materialize, will also represent a sort of social maturity – a century of modernity where communications were difficult, constrained, and expensive has given way to one where they are nearly free and pervasive, but society has not yet developed the appropriate set of tools for dealing with the abrupt shift. Our joint reaction of never checking voicemail (and, let’s face it, never answering a call from an unknown number) isn’t the right one, but neither is it appropriate for us to be bombarded with a huge number of human and machine generated content.

    Another perspective is an economic one – I’d imagine some intrepid econ PhDs have already analyzed the problem and came up with a pricing model for your time and attention.

    1. Thanks for the very insightful comments. Here are a few responses to continue the conversation:

      Jonathan, voice mail requires me to call in and press a bunch of buttons, write down notes, and try to decipher what people have been trying to say. Many times I cannot hear what was said nor understand numbers and such. Also, most everybody I know realizes that is not the best way to reach me. I’m not denying anybody from the ability to reach me – it just takes MUCH LONGER to reach me via voice mail. I don’t have visual voicemail because my carrier doesn’t support it. Also, there is no facility to email me the voice mail. The only voicemail I do get almost as it happens is Google Voice – it comes in a nice email, with a transcription attempt. It also has a nice “play” button and an iPhone app so I can easily listen. But all my other voice mails are barely useful. Btw, I don’t consider voice messages a really two-way conversation. Much less efficient than textual forms (either short form like SMS/instant messages or long form like email).

      Ori, some good ideas there. Looking forward to that more enlightened reality. I’ll share with you the story I often tell about landlines – a daughter of a colleague of mine was walking in their hall at home and bumped up against the phone hanging on the wall. She turned around and asked her father: “Why did you tie the phone to the wall?” I think you buried the fax too early. It’s certainly in decay, but it will live for a while… I just remembered when you and I first dealt with faxes, form an inside out perspective ☺. I agree that some adjustment needs to take place to handle the abrupt shift that we have undergone.

      Sri, enlightening indeed. I could hardly imagine this blog might get to topics such as TM. But this is certainly a form of “communication” I had not considered. One might consider it a “step up” from the normal discussion here ☺

      Ilan & John, totally agree with the ideas you are suggesting. I’ve been thinking about things like this for a while now…

      Eduardo, I too often think about the fact that evolution might not be fast enough to adjust our physical bodies to cope with the rapidly changing technical environment in which we live. That said, many of the technologies TRY to accommodate for our human nature. User experience has been improving over the past few years, especially with touch and gesture interfaces, but not only those. People that don’t know how to use Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, SMS, and anything new that will come along will indeed be relics. Btw, I have no evidence to support this, but still have little doubt that years of hardcore gaming do have impact on how the brain works – it is a muscle… Not everybody is exposed to this. So texting 200 messages a day and managing 10 conversations in parallel is something that can be learned and is important. One thing to say is that I’m not sure that young people consider all these means of communications “chaos” at all. They see it as how things are. I too see this as how things are and I’m dealing quite well with it, but I’m asking myself if this is how it should be.

      Itsik, we can agree to disagree about the issue of morality of Apple. I also believe we will dominate the blog if we have a “religious” argument about Apple. I’ll put a short response here, but let’s not take it more on this page. There are practices of Apple that I do not like (such as the agent model that undercut margins for ereading apps). But they have some great products, great engineering, and also vision. Some of that serves commercial interests and some of it is a different philosophy. Not perfect, but very good. Don’t think Google is perfect either. Check out what they are doing in many aspects and you’ll see other commercial interests and things that you might consider “immoral”.

      Claude-Philippe, yup. Nice future. But then again, I recall my 5 remote controls next to each screen in my home… no plan for Miami in the near future, I’m afraid ☺

      Thanks for the lively and varied discussion!

  13. Tal – while the communications channel is important, no doubt, it is also important to comment on what happened to the contents. My personal experience is that while availability is fantastic – I get to you within seconds, the contents became telegraphic and reduced to one-two words per message. Gone are the well thought, in depth analysis. I think that Apple is a main contributor in replacing contents with immediacy. Thanks Steve!!

  14. @Tal “Looking forward to that more enlightened reality”

    Well, someone not quite as lazy as I am and not quite as spoiled by finance needs to do a lot of hard work for that to happen (and for it to happen in a way that takes a lot of the profile management burden off people’s backs).

    @Itsik punk is dead

    p.s.I’m thinking the guys who wrote ThinThread probably have all the tech skills required to build this (based on what the media says it does) but they really would need one of the big players as partner.

  15. Tal,

    Your post reminds me about a story from the time when the telegraphs appeared and banks started using them.
    Bankers used to work 9-12:00 , 1600-18:00 , going home for lunch and a good schlaf stunde ( afternoon nap).
    A banker started to complain that with the telegraph you are expected to answer next day by telegraph , instead in the sam,e week with normal mail.

    Somehow ,we should think again . The continuous exchange of messages and the expectation to find the other party available all the time, creates a lot of unnecessary noise that is ineffective , time consuming and very distracting.
    I hope that the next generation will stop being so enthusiastic about the gadgets and the methods of communication and start being more concise and selective in communication .
    By next generation, I mean those born the second decade of the 21st century and later.
    Kids , now ( above 6) are still part of the communication revolution.

  16. Nice post.

    I think that if you allow it, yeah, communication chaos will reign.

    I see the issue from a very self-centered perspective — I force folks to use the communications options that work for me; namely, email, mobile voice/text (one number) and USPS (I’m sure some folks cringe at the last one, but it’s still my preference for a lot of communications).

    I disabled my vmail at work/home (it isn’t real time, efficient — I hate vmail); my fax number scans to email (one of my accepted forms of communications); likewise my outbound fax is simply a scanner to email (not perfect, but works for me); I avoid social networks for any material communications; etc.

    I suppose the issue is when one of my mediums doesn’t work for the other end. Sounds bad, but I just live with that! I figure if it is important enough, they will find me, my way! And vice-verse.

    Interesting note regarding signalling — my friends/family have learned that they don’t even need to leave a vmail on my mobile, … that the stored stored caller ID is enough for me to get back to them.

  17. A few more responses to your comments:

    Anuj and Abhisek, EXACTLY!

    Eli, I agree with everything you said except the last point – why blame Apple for “replacing content with immediacy”. You can blame Apple for a lot of things, but I don’t think this one should be pegged to them. Don’t mobile operators with SMS, followed by Facebook and Twitter deserve a role in this, to mention a few?

    Ori, indeed!

    Adrian, I’m not sure we’re going in that direction. More and more service companies now have customer service representatives monitor Facebook and Twitter. The expectation in these mediums is 24×7 availability. If you take more than 5 minutes to respond to Twitter (let alone the next day), the customer might already become irritated… To some degree, thank goodness that Google Wave didn’t take off – otherwise, the expectation for response would have been “while people are typing the complaint the service company needs to kick in…”.

    Matt, all this works for people that know you and know you well, not to mention you had to “hardwire” your environment and “configure” it to suit you. That’s not for everybody. Also, everybody’s “communication preferences” are different. Usually, if you aren’t very close to someone else you communicate with, you cannot recall their personal preferences. So there are issues to this approach. One last thing – most people don’t change defaults. So if the defaults create more communication channels, heck, they stay around.

    Thanks again for the lively discussion!


  18. I think using a smart phone already simplifies a lot of things.
    You can access your Emails, Linkedin, Facebook, Twitter, Skype and Instant Messaging from there besides your SMS, MMS, Voice Calls and Voice Mail.

    So One Smart Phone would do it all.

    And if you also keep a Landline (I dont) then you can check your Answering Machine also once in a while or even better, record a message to give them your Mobile Number, thats it.

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