In the course of writing this feature, not one person was bothered with a phone call or face-to-face interview. Instead they were hassled with emails, Twitter and Facebook demands. Luckily, their responses were favourable. But would it have been better to have spoken to them direct? And generally does the Internet stop us communicating as well as before?
David Crystal, honorary professor of linguistics at the University of Bangor and author of Language and the Internet, believes that it is irrelevant to ask whether email and social networking is destroying the art of conversation. He explains: “It's like asking is written language better or worse than spoken, or printed text better or worse than handwritten, and so on. Criticisms always accompany new communication technology. When the telephone arrived, people thought it was heralding the end of face-to-face communication.”
Back in the late 1990s, many were worried about the negative impact of online communications. Robin Hamman, director of digital at PR firm Edelman, points out that researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in America released a study then that suggested the Internet disconnected people from the family and friends around them. In an interview on BBC Radio 4's Today programme , one of the researchers said: "as people used the Internet more, they were becoming more lonely, more depressed, experiencing more stress in their life, communicating with people in their family somewhat less and reporting having fewer friends that they kept up with". However, Hamman thinks these fears were misplaced: “Whilst it is true that the internet is a global network, it's also true that most people use it – as is also the case with the road network, telephone network and postal network – to keep in touch with friends, organisations or businesses we already know and have some relationship with.”
James Warren, chief digital creative officer at PR firm Weber Shandwick, also believes that digital technology is connecting people more than disconnecting them. And he says that nowhere is this more acute than in the PR and media industries, where, “we all flock to the latest piece of digital frippery eager to show how cutting-edge and popular we are”. As to whether modern communications are improving our interactions, Warren says it depends on your definition of ‘talk’: “Modern communications technology enables us to ‘talk’ non-verbally, which means we can hold multiple conversations concurrently, we can check facts mid-conversation, we can link to corroborative information, we can instantly introduce other people mid-conversation ... the reason we’re talking less in PR is, I believe, because the alternative is so compelling.”
For those, like Hamman and Warren, who love digital chatting, Bangor University’s Crystal highlights the importance of using the media properly. He believes that some people are failing to get their points across, especially those who have not grown up in an Internet world. To help them there are guides to netiquette, for example, Crystal says: “It is bad netiquette to send a message in capitals. IF I WERE TO SEND YOU A MESSAGE LIKE THIS YOU WOULD THINK I WAS SHOUTING. And there are many cases where people send an email without reading it through, and discover their ambiguity or insensitivity only when their recipient responds with a query or a complaint.” To ensure your emails are read as you intended, Crystal gives a few pointers: “Always to keep the needs of your audience clearly in mind. And if you are sending a general message, to several recipients, there is an equal need to ensure that it is satisfactorily impersonal.”
On Facebook we asked: “Have we lost the art of conversation now that we all communicate digitally?”
Ursula Benson, managing director of marketing communications agency Totem: "I live in the vain hope that we will go full circle and that the bright red telephone box will make a revival. Maybe we could launch a red phone box blog/forum/Facebook group and call it 'Bring back the art of conversation' and launch it in a....telephone box!”
Paul Gowers, director at Wilder Films: "Today I sent six emails to a colleague who sits eight feet away from me. Mind you his office is a bit whiffy at this time of year.”
Teresa Horscroft, independent PR consultant: “I still love to talk (she says while communicating on Facebook). I like to spend a fraction of a second considering how I want to communicate. It's easier to email I know, but it's so nice to just pick up the phone and talk instead (or press call on Skype). I find myself starting many phone conversations these days with 'I was about to reply ... ‘”
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