Why Online Communication Is So Not-Great

Published on November 26, 2023 (↻ February 5, 2024), filed under and (RSS feed).

By and large, online communication isn’t great. *

Some platforms are friendlier than others (like Mastodon > Twitter/X), some people are friendlier than others (usually, friends > strangers), but where it hasn’t already collapsed (as with comments?), online communication comes with a fuse. Wait for the explosion. Hope it’s a small one.

Why is that?

I found this interesting to think about, and submit three ideas.

Contents

  1. Reasons for Not-Great Communication
    1. Reason 1: Lack of Context
    2. Reason 2: Lack of Training
    3. Reason 3: Lack of an Accurate-Enough World View
  2. Options for Better Communication
    1. A Review: Hard, Harder, Impossible
    2. A Perspective: We Always Have a Choice

Reasons for Not-Great Communication

Reason 1: Lack of Context

Context is important, because otherwise, statements can mean entirely different things. “Today I drove 500 kilometers” is an impressive feat for a student driver, and nothing worth mentioning to a trucker. (The power of “compared to what?”.)

Online, surprisingly much communication works—but only because there often is some context. In the respective bubbles, people following each other often share similar backgrounds.

Still, communication is prone to be poor because these backgrounds aren’t always similar, let alone identical.

Worse, the platforms and systems we use make it hard to share context—140, 280, or 500 character limits force to do without context.

Without an effective way to provide context, we’re gambling whether followers and readers happen to have similar context. If they don’t—communication isn’t working well.

There is a popular book about low- and high-context cultures. I yet have to read it, but being familiar with the concept and coming from a low-context background, having worked with people from high-context cultures, my observation is that if you don’t know the person, providing more context works better. I recommend erring on that side.

Reason 2: Lack of Training

While we all can’t but communicate, it’s not that there isn’t anything to learn. In fact, without an effort to improve one’s communication, one’s likely to end up being a poor communicator.

Many if not most people are poor communicators.

They lack awareness, they lack techniques, they lack etiquette. They don’t communicate with precision, they don’t know how to argue soundly, and they don’t interpret charitably (nor do they look at letter and spirit).

This isn’t something that drops from the sky. Contrary to other activities, one probably doesn’t become a better communicator simply by communicating more often.

Good communication—clear, effective, pleasant communication—is hard.

Good communication needs training and benefits from making an effort.

Whether someone provides us with training or we get that training ourselves—without it, communication is more likely not to be great.

(Personally, I’d say I can handle it okay, but I communicate in four languages and sometimes struggle even handling two, and I therefore certainly have moments where my communication isn’t great. If I end up not asking for it to be edited or reviewed, perhaps this very article proves the point!)

Reason 3: Lack of an Accurate-Enough World View

Our prevalent philosophical world view, a high-energy, slow-burn blend of physicalism, scientism, and fundamentalism is BS.

It’s so poor that we have steered into an existential crisis killing both our environment (which no other species would do) and our societies—and don’t bother changing anything.

How this affects communication? This world view, physicalist as it is so that events only “happen” to people, distracts from the choices people make, which prevents them from taking responsibility (or us holding them accountable), which ultimately, disempowers them—so that even more things seem to “happen” to people. A vicious cycle.

That is, with our prevailing world views, people are oblivious to their choices, and rarely review or change them. (Could people still make destructive choices? Absolutely—but that’s an insight and challenge that becomes relevant only once we have advanced as a species. A more accurate—and incidentally more empowering—world view is likely to invite more responsible decision-making.)

Communication isn’t great here because people act mindlessly and unconsciously, well not ending up choosing to be respectful and empathetic.

Options for Better Communication

With these three reasons for communication problems, we can review some options.

First, all three factors are at play. However, they don’t have the same impact; it seems to me that (lack of) context and (lack of) training are the strongest.

Context is important for effective communication, and if our communication systems make it hard to share context, then they make it hard to communicate well.

Likewise, while we may not be able not to communicate, there’s a lot to communication. Thinking critically and interpreting charitably alone are more foundational than teaching it only in universities suggests (which is where they may be taught first, if at all).

A Review: Hard, Harder, Impossible

Context is hard to provide and control when our communication systems make sharing it hard. 280 or 500 characters are not enough. Chaining messages is a crutch.

Training is easiest to handle if people develop an interest in improving their communication, and proactively seek learning opportunities. It’s harder to handle when it’s about offering that training to people, as it may need funding and a curriculum to be taught in schools.

World views seem impossible to rattle, especially these days. (If you ask me, it’s the most important problem for us to solve, but also more difficult to pull off than a 21st century version of the Manhattan Project.) People seem to fight tooth and nails to believe things that aren’t true or that don’t work—which precisely confirms the power of belief and the presence of choice, but is an insight that doesn’t manifest without a choice to take responsibility for oneself and the world around oneself.

A Perspective: We Always Have a Choice

Any improvement, any solution starts with us—a truism in a non-physicalist world, and so far a mirage in ours.

Yet there’s something to it, and it’s written all over this post.

We can choose for communication not to be not-great.

We can provide context even when our platforms lack awareness to make good communication easier.

We can seek communication training, and we can ask for more training to be provided (or, if we’re in a position to affect such improvements, provide that training).

We can choose to be better communicators (though this rests on philosophical assumptions not detailed here).

❧ Will this improve our online and offline communication? Given this spontaneous post that merely sketches what we observe, that’s quite a question; and as per the review and perspective I’ve just shared, the answer is: No, it won’t.

And yet, it seems that we can’t but communicate—and that the better we do, the better for all of us.

* Offline communication clearly appears not to be doing great, either. A friend of mine, based in Spain, not in the tech (or philosophy) bubble, just the other day: “You cannot talk to anyone anymore.” (Which then reminds me of the suspicion that the people who are most attuned and sensitive to communication can be just as violent as the ones being insensitive, disrespectful, and hateful, because they suspect and allege ill with anything that isn’t a perfect match to their expectations; that defensive people easily become offensive people. But that’s a different topic.)

Toot about this?

About Me

Jens Oliver Meiert, on September 30, 2021.

I’m Jens, and I’m an engineering lead and author. I’ve worked as a technical lead for companies like Google, I’m close to W3C and WHATWG, and I write and review books for O’Reilly and Frontend Dogma. I love trying things, not only in web development, but also in other areas like philosophy. Here on meiert.com I share some of my views and experiences.

If you have a question or suggestion about what I write, please leave a comment (if available) or a message. Thank you!