Microblogging: Making improbable Communication probable

Why is Twitter, or rather the microblogging-principle, so successful in corporations?

Everybody speaks about Twitter, even with respect to communication within firms. Products like Yammer or Communote, that serve for professional microblogging within organisations and corporations, show that there is a demand. The newest collaboration suites start to implement microblogging functionality, too.

In order to get a satisfying answer to the question, why the communication principle of microblogging is successful we should look to some principles of human communication. I start with the following question: Why is communication very often improbable? And I will connect it with microblogging: How can microblogging help to cope with this issue?

This is a translation of my German blogpost from 18th May 2009

What is ‘improbable communication’?

Niklas Luhmann, probably Germany’s most important contemporary sociologist (died in 1998), stated that communication is improbable per se (in Soziologische Aufklärung III, 1981,  p.31). This, however, seems to be a contradiction to Paul Watzlawick’s famous sermon “It is not possible to not communicate”.

For Watzlawick each kind of behaviour is communication, i.e. it consists of sending some messages that can be observed by others. Try, for example, being in an elevator with somebody foreign and not to communicate. You will not be lucky because everything you are doing will send some signals that are ready for interpretation by the other.

However, Luhmann does not mean this kind of communication as it is a very broad definition of communication and, important for us in terms of digital social media, because it means physical presence. I, however, want to talk about physical absence, which is typical for microblogging.

According to Luhmann, a communicative act may be called ‘finished’ if there is some kind of success from the viewpoint of the sender, i.e. if it is accepted by the receiver. In order to happen there are three conditions neccessary:

  1. The message has to attain a potential receiver.
  2. The message has to be understood by the receiver.
  3. The communicative act has to be accepted by the receiver.

Sounds trivial but these three conditions to happen is not easy. Rather, it happens that communication fails because it does not meet all of those conditions.  What do I mean by saying ‘failing’? My point is, that ordinarily we do not care about the fails, moreover, that we do not even notice them. And pointing to the latter opens up a window behind which we may observe a huge amount of potential: It could happen much more successful communication, if we would notice the conditions of successful communication.

Microblogging and the 3 Conditions of Communication

ad 1. Attaining a Message and ‘Barriers of Discouragement’

Consider a situation in a firm. A conversation of Mr X with colleague A has no 02consequences for the sake of the firm. But if colleague B had been present, the consequences would have been positive because there would have been conducted important actions. The problem here is that the sender (Mr X) does not know that colleague A is not the right receiver for this message, nor that for the same conversation it would have been important to have B present.

This kind of opacity happens very often and only rarely there are adequate measures to solve it. The problem now is that the sender Mr X knows this. In the following this very uncertainty of Mr X establishes barriers of discouragement (”Schwellen der Entmutigung” with Luhmann in German). What happens is that many communicative acts do not happen – even if they were important.

Twitter, or rather microblogging, is a tool to face exactly the problem of opacity by giving a sender the means to blow messages out in the blue. It lowers the barrier to write messages and offers an important new communication channel.  Maybe colleague B would have got this message, either by following the sender or by fulltext search, or by hashtag search, etc.

ad 2. Understanding a Message and Communication Codes

Mankind developed complex languages to cope 041with the problem of understanding. But to understand language we need to know the life-world in which this language is used – the context. So, in order to understand a message we need to have some context information. This counts for conversations, in written text and even more so with Twitter due to the 140 character restriction.

So the second point of Luhmann’s three-fold model is not the one, microblogging could fix. On the contrary. It might be the only thing that makes it difficult to use Twitter. For newbies it is not easy to encrypt Twitter-posts, because the character restriction per post does not allow for writing context information.

However, other microblogging systems allow more than 140 characters. The difficulty here is: what lengths is acceptable for a realtime-device like Microblogging. If the texts are very long, then we do not have a microblog but a blog.

Our suggestion for developers is to implement some soft limitations. We think, for example, of a description field that, maybe after 400 characters, starts getting darker (or more red) the more characters we write into it. So, the writer get an idea that he/she ’should finish soon’.

ad 3. Accepting/Dismissing a Message and the Sociality of Communication

If a message reaches somebody interested and if this somebody gets the clue of it we have another problem: accepting or dismissing the message. We all know the pain if there is something declined we are saying. But with Luhmann, dismissing means that our message is ignored. 042To be ignored also connotes painful situations. But with Twitter it is different. We have this issue very often with Twitter because the offer of postings is very big. And it is no problem. Why?

As we have seen in 1, with Twitter  the sender does not know whether his message is being noticed or not. But the barriers to post are so low that he will continue posting.

Moreover, there are even advantages in terms of professional communication within firms or organisations. Consider the disadvantages of E-Mail and Instant Messaging (IM) that the receiver of a message always has to answer. To get silently the message would be rude. This is not the case with microblogging. This is a relief for the receiver: he, for instance, need not to answer under time pressure. This is a big disadvantage of IM. Very often communication by IM is not productive because we meet just the need to maintain our relationship but nothing above this (i.e. phatic communication, which, by the way, in its community building function nevertheless is very important for microblogging).

The fact that microblogging-posts can be ignored without having negative consequences makes it a communication device that may hinder conflicts that occur with other Web 2.0 tools.

What next?

As seen there is a huge potential to initiate communication that never would happen without tools like microblogging. The rate of communicative acts rises dramatically with these tools. This, for example, is very important for project management where the lack of communication causes many problems.

We at cm|d and our #ubimic Initiative are thinking about what happens if we incorporate machines and sensors: what if human and machines twitter together? Visit our #ubimic Page for further information.

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