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Communications breakdown

Tuesday, May 26, 2015
Bit DepthXX
On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog. PHOTO BY JAVIER BROSCH, DEPOSITPHOTOS

It was around five years ago that I realised that the way I communicate had completely changed. Never one for long conversations on the phone and always forgetting to silence my ringer on the mobile, I simply put the phone on silent one day and never turned it back on. Sometimes people ask the question, usually when confronted with my call-card with its intimidating number of contact points, “What’s the best way to contact you?”

My preference over the last half-decade has migrated steadily but inexorably toward text-based solutions. For the desperately curious, my preference runs in order from mobile phone text message to Facebook chat and Twitter DM. Contacts made that way always get immediate attention. I rarely check phone messages on my mobile and never bother with my landline.

The reasons for that, though, are less digital than socially engineered. Around five years ago, it became clear that we had a problem with our number, which is uncomfortably close to that of a popular religious radio station. At first, the calls were an irritation, sparking sharp responses, until that unforgettable night when I picked up the phone at one in the morning, sparking with anger, only to be met with the husky croak of an old woman.

“Hello,” she said, with a desperate yearning, “I’m calling for prayers.” It was right at that point that I called a family conference to triage the situation. I would flag most of the calls with a standard response, repeating my number and noting that the caller had reached a private home. This only works about half the time. I often have to repeat my response three times to people who simply won’t accept that they have the wrong number.

Some people hang up and call back, apparently believing in a higher power that can reroute the call to the radio station’s phones. Some people get angry. I’ve gotten used to it, because I refuse to surrender a number I’ve had for almost three decades because of an upstart media house. I also don’t expect my current communications mix to last forever.

Lately, people have been declaring Facebook dead for young people. I discovered that around four years ago when a student-initiated page for the photography course I teach at UWI’s Film School essentially expired. Seven years before, when the bright sparks under my tutelage created it, it was a hub of discussion, postings and comments. Now it’s a ghost town, except for the occasional bit of spam and only five students from the last 12 semesters of intake have signed up. 

They have clearly moved on from that medium, and I look at the page occasionally, a bit wistfully perhaps, but the page and Facebook are done for the young people in my classes. As an old people’s medium, Facebook continues to thrive, however. I struck up contact with this newspaper’s new Editor-in-Chief rather brazenly there and stoked a professional relationship with him over five weeks before actually meeting him in person.

There are clearly ways that social media can lubricate the process of engaging with strangers, even as those same channels invite abusive behaviour and incidents of stalking. My own personal investment in such channels is governed by practicality rather than allure, but I am well aware that for others, online engagements constitute a significant part of their relationship with their world, both immediate and diffuse.

There are communications channels that fly competely under my radar, such as Whisper and Snapchat, simply because the majority of those I engage with aren’t there. Even WhatsApp seems to exist outside the communications portfolios of most of those I call friends in the real world. Telecommunications companies both internationally and locally have frowned on such software and protocols to varying degrees, but such migrations of communications traffic are inevitable. 

Companies supplying enabling architecture and services will increasingly have to build into their business plans the migration of communication that was once billed by the minute to a range of over-the-top services that will constantly change and evolve. Choosing to ignore that reality is going to be as deadly as trying to stifle it.


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