Dominating the Conversation

As far as I can tell, much research into ‘digital behavior’ still distinguishes spoken or traditional text based communication from newer forms, lumping together the various modes of smart device communication (email, posts, Tweets, etc.) as if the specific mechanisms didn’t matter. I think they do (or can) and here’s an example from a technical writing course I taught last semester.

I had just finished walking the students through a collaborative project assignment. The groups dove into the project, all the members talking at once, tossing ideas into the air like so many caps at graduation. I was pleasantly surprised. After they actually got to work on the project, they were still all talking at once. I was puzzled. Even when a leader emerged to take down notes and assign roles for the next meeting, they were still all talking at once.  I realized I was watching a new kind of conversation.

We have always adjusted what we say and how we say it to the technology at hand, from    -·-··-·· to auf Wiederhören to  c u l8r. In this case, however, we may be seeing how the dominant technology can alter the nature of conversation itself.

When we converse with someone via email, post, comment, or text message, we don’t expect an immediate response. We don’t have to listen for a reply. It’s not a ‘normal’ conversation in that respect. Moreover, even within these media the communication protocols differ. With email, I do expect an eventual response to what I said. With text messages, posts, and comments, I do not. I may receive a response, or I may not. The response – someone else acknowledging that they ‘got my message’ – is not a requirement of this kind of communication.

The click or tap by which I send my message is, in a very real sense, the end of the conversation from my perspective. I hand control of the rest of the transaction over to the technology.  And it is the technology that responds to me. It is stored in my device, I am alerted to its presence, but I can process it at my leisure. There’s no reply from a real-time, in-my-view human being.

For this particular group of students, communication was primarily text messaging and Facebook posts and comments.  (Indeed, some of them even had trouble using the college’s email app, entering addresses from a global directory search, attaching files, etc.) So am I suggesting that my students spoke over their team members in the classroom just as they would toss their posts or comments into virtual thin air from their smart phones? Yes.

The smart device has become such an integral part of some acts of communication that it has created crosstalk in other communication environments. In text-based, device mediated conversations we rely on its interfaces and its memory.  We take it for granted just as we take our eyes and ears and memory for granted when we are in a real-time conversation.

Not a problem, you say. They simply have to adjust their style of communicating when they are in real-time.  But that is exactly what a dominant technology means – it is the real-time for the user of that technology, it is how conversation happens.

You will not be surprised to learn that some of the teams had trouble meeting the deadline because team members were uncertain about what they had to do by when. More significantly, these teams could not understand how that happened. After all, they’d talked about what to do in class just like everyone else. On the other hand, the teams that did complete the assignment correctly and on time ‘managed’ the schedule and the document itself entirely via Facebook exchanges.

If that doesn’t convince you that a dominant technology can change how we converse, it at least gives you a free alternative to Microsoft Project….

About caerdescri

Author, editor, educator.
This entry was posted in Education, Media Ecology and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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