The Cambrian Communication Explosion

by Translation Guy on August 3, 2012

During the first Cambrian explosion, the creepies started crawling out of the primordial ooze billions of years ago, and all we got to show for it is life as we know it.

A similar kind of phenomena is now exploding human communication. In the last few decades, last few years even, digital communication has reared its shiny head from the ancient slime of newsprint and party lines. “In 1900, communicating was simple. You could talk to somebody. You could write a letter. You could read ink, printed on paper. That was it, really. If you owned a telephone, you were the 1%,” writes Derek Thompson in the Atlantic.

Fifty years later, 4 in 10 households had receivers for those wonders of the 20th Century, radio or TV. But talking and reading print still accounted for all other communication. Strange times if you think about it, and not so long ago. New Yorker writer Calson Whitehead remembers. “I dwelled in a backward age, full of darkness, before the VCR boom, before streaming and on-demand, before DVRs roamed the cable channels at night, scavenging content. Either a movie was on or it wasn’t.” Remember how hard it was to watch TV? Sure only three channels, but there was no remote.

See the graph from a recent McKinsey study. In the last 10 years, broadcast and print have proliferated into social media, instant messaging, SMS, mobile, email and other web-based channels, so that people are spending about twice as much time communicating than they used to. Even so, face-time has taken a big hit, and print and TV are fading fast.

That McKinsey report is all about how much value and productivity remains to be extracted from social media. “Two-thirds of this potential value lies in improving collaboration and communication within and across enterprises. The average interaction worker spends an estimated 28 percent of the workweek managing e-mail and nearly 20 percent looking for internal information or tracking down colleagues who can help with specific tasks. But when companies use social media internally, messages become content; a searchable record of knowledge can reduce, by as much as 35 percent, the time employees spend searching for company information. Additional value can be realized through faster, more efficient, more effective collaboration, both within and between enterprises.”

Email is a burden that’s for sure, and at 1-800-Translate, we’ve moved to an instant messaging environment, which the project managers love, since it allows them to instantly address the slightest concerns of our customers, which is great, but not so productive. (This is what happens when you make the customer experience the key performance indicator.)

But we still have to close sales on the phone, or better yet, in person. I spend a lot of time leaving voice mails and sending emails, trying to spend time with people face-to-face, and it is not getting any easier in the Cambrian age of communication. I suppose by most measures, we have the largest social media presence in the translation space, but I can generate more business over a single martini over at the 21 Club, and it’s a lot more fun.

There is stickiness to the old forms of communication that inclines people to substitute text for conversation, but is also the source of the value of those interactions.

In conclusion? That chart looks all too familiar, except I am free of the idiot box (Breaking Bad excepted). I don’t get out enough.

Anything about that chart look familiar to you? Is social media improving your productivity?


  1. Wilber says:

    A superb piece of writing as always, Ken. BT belated W, I loved your noir Lost in Translation Investigated a while back. It is the work of a literary artist.

  2. Debra says:

    My company has set up an internal network akin to facebook that has made communicating much faster.

  3. Susanann says:

    Most of the time at work, I’ll just facebook chat with people or text rather than email if its something simple.

  4. The wonders of the modern age.

  5. Laura says:

    Really interesting article, that chart certainly looks a lot like my life as well.

  6. Sharon says:

    There is something to this, with an email or voice message, I can succintly relay info. Whereas with actual conversation you get drawn into asides easily.

  7. Great piece, I was just thinking along the same lines the other morning in my cubicle as I realized I had talked to over 50 people that day, while only seeing 4 or 5 in person.

  8. Fredda says:

    It;s quite amazing how quickly it took for some of this technology to proliferate in reading the chart the upward spike are pretty drastic.

  9. Lyca says:

    I honestly think that chart underestimates how much time people spend on certain things.

  10. I wish my company would move to instant messaging, I spend far too much time checking email.

  11. Hala says:

    Wow, people still watch an awful lot of TV, even on average.

    • Ken says:

      Where do they find the time?

  12. Nita says:

    So people are communicating twice as much as before, is it as efective? How would one measure such a thing?

    • Ken says:

      I measure it through my sales activity. If you close the sale, the communication strategy was effective.

  13. Not sure that what most people do on facebook could count as communication.

  14. Jane says:

    So is digital communication good or bad for actual establishing real, valuable connections? It obviously can affect productivity, but does it produce value in connections?

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