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The Cambrian Communication Explosion
August 3, 2012 - By: - In: Language - 16 comments

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?

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