The big issues? War, hunger, and oppression, of course. After that, questions of human communication seem pretty important to me. Especially since the landscape we stand on is shifting. [Update: The comments on this piece are fantastic. My profound thanks to the contributors.]

Homo sapiens has been around for 200,000 years, more or less. Evidence suggests that human language has to be at least 50,000 years old, and there are reasonable arguments (cf. Chomsky) that it goes back about as far as we do.

For most of those years, the only way for people to use language was to be in each others’ presence. But as time has unfolded we’ve been fixing that problem. Not, however at an even pace:

Age in Years
(2007 estimate)
Homo sapiens ~200,000
Language >50,000
Writing 5,000
Telephone 131
Broadcasting 101
E-Mail 25
IRC 19
Texting 15
IM 11
Blogging 10
Twitter 1

Sorting Them Out · As of today, if I want to deliver a message to other humans, I have a whole lot of ways to go about it. Most of them have the same cost: zero, more or less. The exception is face-to-face, which can be very expensive; consider the horrifying number of Sun’s travel dollars that I burn every year.

I observe this, and questions occur to me. Have we invented all the communication modes we’re going to need, or will there be more? What needs are going un-addressed? And at the meta level: Does all this have a general higher-order structure that might help us think about these things?

We observe empirically that humans have little trouble deciding whether any particular message is best suited to a phone call, an email, or a Twitter post. What might be going into those decisions?

Immediacy · You might also say “latency”; how long does it take from a message to filter via language from your mind to mine? Face-to-face speech has excellent immediacy, as does a telephone conversation. The immediacy of texting is somewhat less, and a blog post doesn’t arrive until the reader gets around to looking.

Lifespan · How long does a message last? Modulo the fact that in 2007 everything is being recorded, by default a spoken word lasts only while the air’s still vibrating, and then becomes subject to the vagaries of human wetware. At the other end of the spectrum, a blog post potentially persists as long as the Internet’s memory, which is an unknown quantity but almost certainly longer than the human lifespan.

Audience · How large an audience can a message reach? Face-to-face is limited by the number of people you can pack into a room; realistically, more than a couple of hundred and it becomes more like broadcasting. A telephone conversation usually includes only two people, while blogs and broadcasting can potentially reach, well, everybody.

Sorting Them Out · So, I decided to try and illustrate how these things sort out. I assigned arbitrary Immediacy, Lifespan, and Audience scores in the range 0-40 to a bunch of communication modes.

F2F Phone Text IM IRC Mail Blogs Feeds Twitter
Immediacy 40 40 20 30 30 10 5 10 10
Lifespan 3 3 10 10 10 30 40 10 10
Audience 3 3 3 10 20 20 40 30 30

Then I tried graphing it.

I’m going to keep fooling with this. You see, if you draw the right graph, maybe you’ll see the gaping hole in it, the Next Big Thing.

Graph of the human communcation mode space

Who wouldn’t want to expand the human communication spectrum?

Why aren’t more people thinking about this stuff?


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Alex Waterhouse-Hayward (Nov 25 2007, at 17:43)

The purpose of the great stained-glass windows of Our Lady of Chartres Cathedral was not only to glorify God but to enlighten and educate those who could not read. The visual arts, be it a window, a sculpture, a painting or a dance are all methods of communication. And then there is music...

When I first photographed Carole Taylor (our current Minister of Finance) many years ago I found her as beautiful then as she is now. I had a curious experience while taking her pictures. I would look through my viewfinder and think, "She is almost perfect and now if only she would tilt her head to the left.." And Carole Taylor would tilt her head to the left. And then I would think, "If she now only nodded down and showed just a bit of teeth, it would be even better." And Carole Taylor would nod down and show some teeth....


From: Mike (Nov 25 2007, at 17:56)

Your high Immediacy rating for F2F is questionable; it only applies if you don't factor in setup time (e.g. a flight from Canada to Japan).

"Who wouldn’t want to expand the human communication spectrum?"... I assume that was intended to be a rhetorical question, but I'd like to play devil's advocate. Communication has been a huge evolutionary advantage for Homo Sapiens, so it's not unreasonable to suppose that we might be "wired" to seek it out, in the same way that we're wired for sex or carbohydrates. Which in turn raises the possibility that humans will happily use forms of communication that are not at all good for them. Nutrition is good, right? Who wouldn't want to expand the human nutritional spectrum? Well, lots of people, if the expansion is to take in high-fructose corn syrup.

I think blogging teeters on the edge of this; it can go either way. Twitter is way over the line; it's crack for communication junkies.


From: Colin (Nov 25 2007, at 18:37)

Does the printing press (about 570 years old) deserve an entry in your list? It made a huge difference to the number of books which circulated and who they circulated to

You could also argue for photography (180 years); recorded sounds (130-150 years) and cinema (110 years). It depends if communication is tied to language or if non-verbal communication comes into it


From: Rafael de F. Ferreira (Nov 25 2007, at 18:43)

I like this vaguely related essay by Donald Norman:


From: Charles Oliver Nutter (Nov 25 2007, at 19:40)

I'd be interested in your thoughts on my Foo Camp talk topic (cut short by a helicopter landing, but I think there's a lot to discuss here)...

It seems very similar to what you're talking about here; that we should be working to reduce the barriers to pervasive communication between all humans. The trend is obvious...and those who can capitalize on accelerating that trend are going to come out winners.


From: Ted Han (Nov 25 2007, at 19:43)

"Why aren’t more people thinking about this stuff?"

Gee, if only there was a field of study for this sort of thing, some sort of lingual studies... how about... languagology, maybe... perhaps, we should call it, linguistics :P


Tim, I think that you're under the same general misconception that everyone is, which is to say that human language is equivalent to human communication. Not to put too fine a point on it, but there's a reason why face-to-face is still done to this day, and preferred over all other forms of communication. Each of the other media you've mentioned are lossy in some way, some are massively lossy. You don't get to see body language via the telephone, or skype, broadcast video continues to be so expensive that it remains a one way medium, and text of any variety (email, books, instant messengers, twitter) doesn't give you access to a person's intonation or sense of rhythm. These may seem individually like sort of nit-picky issues, but each of them has an impact on how communication takes place.

I bring this up because first, because i think you're over-looking the differences between the characteristics of each medium, in order to find solid fundamental baselines upon which compare each medium, and second because the descriptors you've chosen are hand-wavy at best.

Notions like immediacy sound like conflations of at least two separate things, something like spontaneity of opening a channel, and perhaps the amount of time required to process the incoming data (that is a critical component if you're really interested in getting info from one brain to another). This is important because the ability to quickly open a communication channel is different from the characteristics of how a channel gets data into your brain (i.e. text is 2-dimensional and skimmable, video/audio are linear and not easily skimmable).

I apologize in that there is plenty more to say about this, but i'm too tired to write more at the moment. Hopefully this provides something to think about (if anyone expresses interest, i'll write more later).

Cheers from a snarky linguist.


From: Tony Fisk (Nov 25 2007, at 19:55)

If you could combine blogs with F2F or phone? ...well, as GB Shaw once observed when asked a similar question, you could end up with something having the persistence of F2F, a phone's audience and a blog's immediacy.


From: Pat Patterson (Nov 25 2007, at 20:00)

I think Voice+Video (Skype Video, plus all the other IM systems now) deserves inclusion, too. Not so long ago, it was the stuff of science fiction - now a whole generation is growing up with the ability to have (free!) face-to-face conversations with family, friends, colleagues across the world.


From: Tantek (Nov 25 2007, at 20:13)

Tim, I've been working on this for a while. My research on the various forms of communication we seem to be using, analysis thereof, and current results including preferences are here:

That page links to others who have been working on these problems as well.


From: Austin Ziegler (Nov 25 2007, at 20:18)

I think you're missing a vector or two, Tim: intimacy and richness (or bandwidth, if you prefer). They might be the same thing. That is, a face to face meeting often solves things faster because everyone is present in the same room and it's easier to adjust one's negotiating stance or information delivery based on how you perceive your meeting partners reacting to what you're communicating. This is because you can read body language. You can't do that on the phone or even on most electronic media.

I think that intimacy and richness are two different things because one can provide a deep exploration or a subject in a blog post, but one can't typically be intimately connected to one's readers that way (because it is a bully pulpit).


From: ernie (Nov 25 2007, at 20:58)

It might be interesting to flip your variables... make the axes of the spiderplot immediacy, lifespan, audience, and then assign a line to each technology to see how they fare in each category.. You would see what variables aren't well addressed, etc.


From: John Cowan (Nov 25 2007, at 21:10)

I've had a fair amount of experience now with video conference calls, and even though the bandwidth is quite high, they still are nothing like F2F -- in fact, the video still feels like a frill layered over ordinary audio conferencing. TV is still TV, even when you can talk back to the other side in real time.

On the other hand, I'm decidedly non-visual and have a moderate case of prosopagnosia (see Wikipedia), so I may not be the best witness.


From: Brian Slesinsky (Nov 25 2007, at 22:11)

Many things are best communicated by showing rather than telling. So, add working in front of the same computer, VNC, screencasts, and so on, and that's just in computing. What about teaching someone to drive, to repair a car, to fly a plane, how to dance in a certain way, sports, and so on?

Where does a flight simulator appear on your chart?


From: Ion Morega (Nov 25 2007, at 23:21)

Now *that* is some good food for thought. Some ideas:

Why not add another metric, "bandwidth", meaning how much information can be conveyed per unit time (or, rather, per unit of attention, which may or may not be the same thing)?

Also it looks like you left out books. Off the top of my head, the camel book or the pickaxe are interesting examples of communication, that are more than simply presenting information; they have an air of person-to-person communicatin in them.

TV is still important too. You might say that yoy intentionally left out forms of broadcasting, but then blogs (at least in some incarnations) and maybe twitter might be left out too. Broadcasting is important, I think it should be on the same chart. Maybe add another metric, round-trip-time (which is low for face-to-face conversations, and very high for things like books and TV).


From: Luis (Nov 26 2007, at 04:36)

I'm surprised you don't have wiki in here; collaboration is really just another form of communication, it seems to me...


From: Chris (Nov 26 2007, at 05:03)

Audio and video are equally important content types than text.

I would classify communications by timing (realtime / asynchronous), view permissions (private / public), and edit permissions (private / public).

See for a chart.


From: Emanuel (Nov 26 2007, at 05:08)

I'd like to introduce the feedback factor. It could be collected under the Immediacy aspect, but I prefer to keep it separated.

Sometimes I prefer to place a call instead of sending a mail, not only for the immediacy of reaching someone, but also because there can me an actual conversation between the two peers. It's not an asynchronous process and the subject can evolve while talking.

In this way I'd give the same feedback value to IRC,IM, Phone and F2F.

On a side note, it's interesting how Feeds and Twitter have exactly the same results.


From: len (Nov 26 2007, at 06:02)

So we need a lot more spam?

Our local paper featured a story about a woman living in my neighborhood who suffers a debilitating disease. She signed up to Second Life for 'freedom of movement and social interaction'. Since then, her machine has been continuously attacked, threatening phone calls and letters sent to her home, and she has been assaulted in-world. Why?

For fun.

As the rate of intermediated communications increases, there is a coupling to an upsurge in violence. Perhaps what we need is less chat, less spam and more face-to-face. Then at least she can hit a griefer with her crutch.


From: Lennon (Nov 26 2007, at 10:11)

I think there's another important online channel that isn't included here: discussion boards. In fact, I don't see the classic BBS, NNTP newsgroups, or the modern web-board equivalents in there at all. (Think about the relative longevity of *those* channels, eh?)

While most digerati like us may shun them in favor of thick-client solutions, a large portion of the internet-using population out there cluster around topical community boards, and follow discussion threads there just as actively as we do our mail clients and feed readers.


From: PJ (Nov 26 2007, at 10:26)

Your graph is inside out... your axes are the comm methods, not the attributes of them. How about Immediacy/Lifespan/Audience as 3 axes and then plot points that represent the methods - that would really show you where the holes are.


From: iBob (Nov 26 2007, at 15:35)

how about robotic proxies?

network-based cyborgs?


From: Ashwin (Nov 26 2007, at 19:39)

There is an entire academic field devoted to this question - "Computer Mediated Communication". I've had a course this semester, with a bunch of readings which speak directly to the issues you raise,


From: Greg Borenstein (Nov 27 2007, at 02:00)

It's interesting that none of the communcation strategies you list excel at both Immediacy and Lifespan.

This is exactly the goal of certain kinds of art: capturing what it feels/looks/sounds like to be an embodied person in a particular place and time and making that set of sensation eternally available. You might think of a Chardin painting or any of a variety of famous photographic examples (Barthes' Camera Lucida is basically an argument for this as the natural aesthetic of photography).

It might not be instantly obvious how these media would qualify as immediate, but in the pace of their own day, they often were received that way; much of the reception of photography in the second half of the 19th century (and into the 20th) takes the form of Shock of the New in the face of seeing images from all around the world and from the great current events arrive in peoples' eyeballs so quickly. And, earlier in that century, the Salons were the news readers of their day: a brand new centralized place where, for the first time, you could see all that was happening that very moment in the culture.


From: Bill Seitz (Nov 27 2007, at 09:54)

I think you should try 2 variations of your last graph

1. make a 3-vector version for the 3 dimensions, connect the dots for each given medium, and see how those triangles overlap and leave holes.

2. since there are only 3 dimensions, just plot each medium as a point in 3D space.


From: Rhanda Salameh (Nov 28 2007, at 08:47)

My experience is that we are multi-sensory and multi-dimensional beings and therefore communicate in multiple ways at multiple levels. I appreciate the comments about art in its various forms and mediums, as well as the myriad forms of communication noted in others' comments. Some forms of communication are best conveyed through language and others are not. Perhaps it depends on whether one is addressing and interacting with the intellect, the emotions, the soul or other aspects of the being.

Alex, you wrote of a 'curious experience' while photographing your subject. Do you have a term or words for your interpretation of that phenomenon? It led me to open Autobiography of a Yogi and read again, "all thoughts vibrate eternally in the cosmos". Perhaps your thoughts of "now if she would only..." and her compliance, might be an example of a thought being transmitted, vibrating, being picked up, and a cooperative response. I think most people have experienced this phenomenon in one version or another and attributed their own words and meaning. My own have usually been with people, but let's also consider communication with animals and all life forms.

Might the 'Next Big Thing' already have been realized and simply be waiting for our re-discovery? And what might be the implications for web-based technologies and all other forms of verbal and non-verbal communication?


From: Tony Fisk (Nov 28 2007, at 19:20)

I'm going to point out a dark horse, if I may.

SF author and futurist David Brin has been messing about with ways of providing effective web communications in 'Holocene Chat' ( The basic idea is to mimic natural modes of human conversation in a 'cocktail party' setting (it allows you to adjust your focus of attention: move around, tune in on the interesting themes, filter out the bores...).

In terms of your graph, I'd give it the following ratings:

immediacy: 30-45 (a little better than IM)

lifespan: 10-15 (conversation stored for length of session. As they age, sentences compact in a way that retains meaning)

audience: 20-30 (practical limit of ~ 6 at any time, although several conversations can occur simultaneously)

bandwidth: 30 (allows you to focus on items of interest. I believe the physical bandwidth requirements are actually quite low)

Which is to say that it fills an empty niche, at least.

Is it the next big thing? Not on present indications! Nevertheless, it explores a couple of interesting ideas, and I thought it worth a mention.


From: Eric Dobbs (Nov 28 2007, at 21:06)

Perhaps not relevant to your graph above, but an important addition to the catalog of modes of communication that has emerged here in the comments...

Think of the scene in The Matrix when Neo is challenged to a fight by the Oracle's private guard. They fight for a while until the guard announces that Neo has passed the test and escorts him to the Oracle. Sparing is communication -- an incredibly intimate, non-verbal, high-stakes form of communication.

You can't learn martial arts from a book or videos and you can't just download kung fu. One can only learn martial arts through direct, hand-to-hand instruction with a master. Even the master's direct verbal instruction and face-to-face demonstration is second-rate. There's no substitute for the actual physical contact.

When learning, it's not just brain-to-brain communication but brain-to-body-to-body-to-brain. Another nuance to the communication, one is also training to learn how to read an opponent's body language under the most extreme conditions. If diplomacy fails completely, one's opponent will conceal their intended attacks and defense, and they'll expressly deceive in their body language.

In sparing, the communication is far more immediate than face-to-face speech. In learning, the communication could be among the slowest in terms of immediacy because it takes a lot of experience to train one's body to perform a technique with some level of mastery. Similarly for lifespan -- incredibly short in sparing (only minutes), incredibly long in learning (probably longer than recorded history).


From: len (Nov 29 2007, at 06:54)

As this topic drifts toward training, a nod to the physical experience noted in the comment on marshall arts. There is a thread at CNet about the game "Guitar Hero" asking if it contributes to learning to play guitar or to the desire to play guitar. The comments are mixed but the guitarists tend toward the negative noting that physical training has to be more precise or it leads to bad habits and frustration when attempting the real experience.

Simulation as physical training relies on onset cues (see literature on the history of flight simulators). In terms of expectation setting, it does work and given a high fidelity simulation, it does work well depending on how well the simulator can match the different real-world situations that can occur. There is a lot of investment being made in virtual worlds for business and serious games predicated on the notion that increasing the modalities of communication therefore the onset cues, a so-called 3D Web improves collaboration, a very important communication task.

This makes me wonder about intermediated communications and if the use of our digital technologies helps or hurts someone when they go F2F. A touchpoint here might be how we deal with people at conferences whom prior to that we have only sparred with online.


From: Jon Mountjoy (Dec 01 2007, at 02:22)

I like the breakdown (and the comments). How about an additional dimension:

Probability that someone is listening on the other end

If I am in a F2F or IM I know someone is listening. If they don't open their mouth or type a sensible response, it's pretty obvious...

On a phone call, if it's a conference call in particular, I know that probability is lower-I can hear keyboards in the background. With twitter, it's certainly uncertain, etc.


From: Janet (Dec 02 2007, at 23:32)

In pursuit of better human communication, please let's not get distracted with the tools so much. Much of what I have encountered in pursuit of "effective communication" reads more like making bug fixes on a parser, not sitting down, reading or listening, and trying to imagine the vantage point and experiences of the speaker. Or trying to build a nightingale.

I admit the notion of active listening and conversation has variable results, and has scale issues, but it works.


From: Flo Ledermann (Dec 04 2007, at 05:26)

I second eric and PJ on the suggestion of flipping the axes. You could add some of the other dimensions mentioned in the comments as well, which would give a star-like profile for each means of communication. Actually there is an established visualization technique doing just that, and it's called stardinates (unfortunately i couldn't find any elaborate online resources, but you'll find plenty of research papers online). Actually the stardinates are a mutation of a concept called parallel coordinates, you will find plenty of literature on these as well.

I don't agree on the suggestion of plotting the items in 3D-space, since imho this will not provide you any insight or overview - especially not on a 2D display ;)

Good luck on your quest for the holes in the graph!


From: Nick Vidal (Dec 04 2007, at 07:56)

I wonder how ISS would be rated. ISS is a set of open standards that combines feeds, blogs, e-mail and instant messaging.


<li><b>Immediacy</b>: If your personal social network is well connected with a particular topic, you'll be able to discover and syndicate information fast.</li>

<li><b>Lifespan</b>: It's a lifelong aggregator that encompasses yours and other peoples' information, thus the lifespan is proportional to the relevance of the information itself.</li>

<li><b>Audience</b>: Information is propagated in a bottom-up manner. The cascading of trustful social networks works as a filter or distributed recommender system perfectly tuned to output a very personalized journal for each individual. So the audience is very precise.</li>



From: Charles (Dec 04 2007, at 08:10)

You do need to add "synchronous/asynchronous" to the qualia of these methods. Phone calls are synchronous (got to do them together), F2F is sync, video calls are sync.

Twitter isn't, email isn't, and so on.

But that suggests where there are gaps. Async phone calls? We call it "voicemail". Async F2F? Umm.. that must be a video message.

You can have all sorts of axes on your spider plot (but you definitely need to change it so the qualia are the straight lines, and you evaluate products against them.


From: Douglas Galbi (Dec 04 2007, at 21:07)

You start from the assumption that communication means delivering a message to other humans. That assumption tends to obscure two other very important models of communication: story-telling and presence. Story-telling and presence, like any re-arrangement of stuff (including symbols), can be described as changes in information. But that's not always useful. Stories that are like delivering a message are didactic and dull. Presence depends strongly on the biology and experience of parties to communication. For more discussion of these issues, see my work Sense in Communication at or the presence and sensory ecology categories on my blog,


From: David Roussel (Dec 10 2007, at 12:53)

For more on the history on communication see this on the idea that the introduction of spaces between words was a key innovation in the development of private reading and thus private thought.

Very interesting.

Note that the text on the Rosetta Stone does indeed contain no spaces.


From: Martin (Dec 12 2007, at 02:44)

You fail to think about radio. You also fail to think that 80% (at least) of humankind have no access to information technology. There's no mention of mass media. And,most importantly: you fail to recognize that a) there's only so much a person can be interested in and b) there's only so much a person can concentrate on in a given amount of time. Otherwise, a very inspiring article...


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