My own thoughts--for me.
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Monday, January 19, 2004

Station to Station 

It's often said that there's no substitute for face-to-face communication. It depends on what you mean by substitute. If it means that face-to-face has certain advantages over communication at a distance, such as telephone, letters, instant message, or email, then I'm sure it's true. It's not that easy to say what the advantages are, but one would be the ability to see the other person's face. OK, what about online communication in real time with both parties on a live video cam? Now it's even harder to say what the advantages are of face-to-face, but still I'm sure there are some. Even so, there are disadvantages, so if the claim that there's no substitute means that face-to-face is better in every way, it's not right.

Traditional forms of distance communication, such as letter writing and telephone, show us some of the advantages, and I wonder if people don't pay enough attention to these in thinking about the growth of new computer-based kinds of distance communication. Letters, which involve an extended expression by one party without any interaction or interruption until some time later, often encourage a kind of honesty, intimacy, and reflectiveness that would be unlikely face-to-face. Does this advantage carry over to email? I think the answer is mixed. Email is delivered immediately, and a reply could be on it's way at any time, possibly even before the first writer leaves the computer. This seems to change things. I suppose one thing it does is to make it feel less necessary to go on at length. You'll have an open line of email communication soon anyway. Email tends to be less substantial that paper letters in my experience, and this might be partly why. On the other hand, email is so fast and easy that it tends to be more frequent. We're writing each other a lot more than we did 20 years ago, without a doubt. And I think email retains enough of the advantages of letters for it to have some significant advantages over face-to-face communication. For example, I am more likely to be sincerely asked what's going on in my life in an email than in person (even supposing it's the same person who is or is not doing the asking).

Telephone is a form of distance communication, and it has advantages over face-to-face too, advantages which I think are familiar. I see an extreme example of this in my youngest (10 year old) daughter's addiction to the phone. She can talk and talk to her friends at a length and over a range of topics I don't see her accomplishing with them in person. And she's only 10, headed for a great telephone career as far as I can tell. The computer-based form that's most analogous to phone would by IM, or instant messaging. People converse by sharing a computer window in real time. Both of my daughters are doing a lot of this. It seems to me to retain the advantages of phone, and to add in some of the advantages of letter writing. It's hard to know how to compare it to face-to-face communication. Should we ask whether it has advantages over having the same people in the same room for the same period of time? That's a weird comparison, since the flow of time is so different. IM seems to continue seamlessly over long stretches of time, covering absences for dinner, etc. I don't know. (10 year old Hannah verifies that she has good IM conversations with some kids she was much more shy with in person.)

But add in the possibilities with cam, voice, IM, email, blogs, etc., and I think old-fashioned face-to-face communication is thin and clumsy in certain ways. Of course, it is preferable in some ways too. But the new forms are adding a lot. Not just the greater volume of communication that is allowed by the ease and speed of these new forms. Even apart from that, they are better in some ways. They are not a substitute for face-to-face. And face-to-face is not a substitute for them.

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