OK, hold off, this isn’t another “Get off my lawn!” editorial from an old dog who refuses to learn new tricks. I have Twitter/Facebook/Flickr/Google/Tumblr accounts, a smart phone (and, yes, I text – a lot!), and I just canceled my telephone “land line.” But I think it’s time for a reality check here.
6-8 years ago, the buzz amongst technology-innovative teachers was that, when they were asked, students described email as the communications platform their parents used (and they didn’t). It was an oft-used tag line for technology bleeding-edge educators. Of course, out of context, that little sound bite ignored a long list of other things parents do, and students don’t – the most important (but by no means the only) is that adults have jobs. Professional communications is a category in which our students don’t generally dabble.
30 years ago, almost all professional and adult communications happened through two media: phone, and paper. The former was “real time and undocumented,” the latter was “not real time and documented.” (“CC” means, quite literally, “carbon copy,” since anyone wanting to retain or broadcast paper communications often made copies using sheets of carbon paper.) You chose which medium based on the task at hand. Everybody used both. (As an aside, I’m always tickled at the “one billion Facebook users” stat. Gee, I wonder what the market saturation of letter communications was before the Internet?) If you wanted to participate in the world of professionals, you had to use both.
Things are very different now. And don’t get me wrong, they’re a lot better in some respects. There are dozens of ways to communicate professionally. And since communications/networking platforms naturally tend to merge towards each other (after all, they’re all chasing essentially the same customer base – all of us!), they have similar abilities. As an example, Twitter can be used for everything, and often is. If you’re a full participant in the “twittersphere,” you will be just as likely to use it to follow the Cats, share pictures of your grandkids, search for professional resources, or contact individuals. The main limitation, of course, is that (unlike phones 30 years ago) not everybody uses it, so the selection of that medium isolates you to the audience that does. (Not incidentally, it also throws your communications needs into the same pool with everything from NFL super-fans to Russian husband-hunters, something that occasionally causes professionals to get bitten by their own personal excesses.)
The same is true of Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, you name it. (Of course, there’s also texting, but its use is almost exclusively personal. For most “adult” tasks — group messages, or messages with any length or content — texting is a disaster.)
So why have these media supplanted email? Several reasons:
- Email, being the first electronic communications platform with any broad use, has come to be abused, overused, and otherwise used ineffectively. People are simply overwhelmed, and associate that with the platform.
- Smart phones have propelled everybody into smaller and smaller media bursts, making platforms which support them easier and more attractive.
- And, of course, in the world of social media, “social” has more than a passing impact here – we’re excited about living the positive parts of our lives publicly, where we can celebrate (and be celebrated for) all of the wonderful things we do. So it’s not surprising that many choose a communications platform which also serves this need. (Not to say this isn’t useful, or even exciting – but the old adage “…to a hammer…” applies, especially to young people.)
If we are to be intentional about communication, we should be intentional about communications platform. We’re crammed between two extremes:
- Social media platforms are designed for broadcast.
- Texting is designed for short bursts aimed at one or a few persons.
Although they both serve important niches, neither makes sense for most professional communications, where the task at hand is usually longer than a short burst, and where there’s actually, often, a down side to having a social context to communications. (Can you imagine if software designers worked through Twitter? How would anyone copyright anything?!)
That isn’t to say that all communications platforms don’t have something to offer the professional (it seems, these days, that most online professional learning communities have moved from LISTSERVs to Twitter), but most adult professionals know that email is the only platform they can use for a variety of tasks….
- 1-1 communication with someone outside of the public eye.
- Communications which require complex or multifaceted communications or response.
Almost all teachers use email a great deal in their professional lives. That is true of almost any other profession these days. We do a disservice to ourselves and our students by not teaching this medium.
But even more important – if we do support and teach email, we stand a chance of improving its effective use for us all! The goal here isn’t just to chase the herd, but to set standards for human effectiveness in all endeavors, and train our students to those standards. If we neglect email, or don’t teach the differences between communications platforms to the next generation of users, we will have impacted content, and workplace-readiness.