A Brief History of Communication Media

From primary orality through to our current age, there have been a number of major communication advancements traceable through the tools and technology that have risen. Each of these advancing examples tended (or tends) to have a specific delivery style, conditions of communication, and offers us one or more benefit–aural, visual, textual, archival, or live interactive–while lacking, or even removing, another.

Primarily Oral Communication
This was, perhaps the purest form in regard to the human and synchronous nature of the communication. With most examples of primary orality, we imagine either the intimate setting of the one-to-one(or few) exchange, passing on skills and stories in preliterate culture, or we refer to the one-to-many debates and public oration of ancient Greece. In both of these situations, the setting was live, delivered in real time by a person whose appearance and gestures could be seen; whose voice intonation, volume, and emphasis could be heard. It was a synchronous setting in which the audience could interact with the orator in various ways–depending on the situation and group size–by asking questions, (re)directing topics, and turning a one-sided oration into a two-sided, interactive conversation. The downside to this setting was it was entirely ephemeral. With no way to record the event, any level of longevity was left in the memory of those present at the time.

The chirographic and print eras brought the ability to record events, dates, and histories. But, as Plato discussed–via Socrates in the Phaedrus–written words cannot answer for themselves. The audience was not generally present when the orator/author was creating the work, and he or she was not present when the text was experienced by the audience/reader. Of importance to the writing era is the ability to exchange messages and letters across great distances. Unfortunately, this situation was far less than synchronous, requiring discussion participants to often wait weeks or months (for over-seas communication) for each element of the exchange.

The telegraph created the ability to send text across greater distances, but it still had the downfalls of communicating solely through textual means.

The phone brought the ability to have live/synchronous conversations over great distances. In this situation, one could get immediate responses to each exchange of the conversation, and also perceive the other speaker’s voice tone, emotion, volume, etc. However, what was lacking in the humanness was the visual aspect, the ability to see the other person’s facial expression, gesture, and general appearance. Additionally, early phone calls could not be recorded. While this ability came later, it was rarely used for purposes other than legal proceedings.

Similar to the telephone, radio brought the ability to communicate across great distances, yet only through audio means. One of the main differences with this technology is that it was delivered in the one-to-many format. Radio programs could be broadcast to many listeners. Additionally, whereas an individual could have a conversation, write a text, or make a phone call, the radio was one-sided and it required an elaborate setup with many people and much equipment. Not until the advent of tape recorders could one record anything off the radio.

Additionally, it is worth mentioning he advent of Talk Radio. Prior to this practice, radio was a one-sided, one-to-many situation. However, talk radio broke that barrier by making the orator-to-audience interactive. In this way, the audience added to the Invention of the radio show and to the information/educational value of the oration.

Television took the basic delivery and programming style of radio and added the visual element. With this addition, the audience could now see the orators’ gestures and appearance, as well as hear all of the accompanying audio. The audience member even had more control over these factors than in a primarily oral setting in that he or she could alter the volume and even change the channel (move to a different orator) with ease and no chance of offending.

Most programs, albeit live, were scripted and largely planned and rehearsed. This was a one-to-many format that was single-sided, not offering any response possibility from the audience. Also like radio, it was not initially possible for an individual to produce a television program. Later, this was possible (although such shows were generally rather low-quality) through the use of home-video cameras.

Not until the advent of video tape recorders could one record anything off the television. However, this technology added to the control that the television afforded the audience, in that he or she could now record, pause, rewind, and fast-forward through presentations.

The arrival of the Web and email provided the ability to send letters around the world in moments. It was a one-to-one or one-to-many format. It even allows participants to attach documents, audio files, or video files, thus making it multimedia. Unfortunately, while it did offer new ways to move information and it was almost synchronous, it was still foundationally a text tool and provided no humanness of experiencing the live visual or audio elements. Email, supported by the Internet, was a major advancement in that now anyone (with a computer) could create these letters and send them off.

Instant messenger (IM) or chat sessions are a common method of conducting such discussions, due to their quick, inexpensive, and immediate nature. However, such sessions are purely textual and therefore lacking the ability for the participants to fully experience the other individuals’ voice intonation, gestures, and facial expressions making it easy to misinterpret the tone and emotion, which is why we have emoticons to simulate some of these attitudes and expressions. IM/Chat took the idea of email and added the synchronous element. It is not so unlike using email in that it is text-based, and other media files can be added for transfer/download. It could also be seen as mimicking certain aspects of the live conversation in that it is clearly conversational, although it lacks the audio and visual element.

In fact, an oddity arises with the IM situation. With the communication examples I’ve discussed above, one is either obviously aware that the other person is there or not (like with primary oral settings or with a text) or he or she is rapidly aware, such as someone setting down a phone. The nature of the phone is that one lets the other person know if he or she is stepping away. However, with IM, that is not always the case. Since you are not right in front of the individual(s) with whom you are communicating, there are spans of “silence” during which the other person does not know what you are doing and whether you are even still sitting there. It lacks the ability for one to accurately glean ambiance awareness.

Online Video
Most online video (like YouTube.com) is not unlike television. Files are one-sided, generally pre-recorded, and delivered asynchronously. Those videos that are live streams are still one-sided in that an individual watching the video cannot communicate. The exception to this setting is when one can type in questions to the orator; but this situation is specific and rare and also represents a different interaction of text and video. In most cases, there is not an audience present when an individual is producing a video. In this way, the setting for the “author” is similar to that of an individual writing a book. Short of the noted streaming live video exception, the orator is never aware of the audience until, perhaps, later by accessing viewing statistics.

One aspect of online video that differs from television is the ability for anyone to produce and post videos online. One must have a computer, a camera, and an internet connection, but it is free to post and store videos on sites, such as YouTube, Viddler, and Vimeo. While professionally-produced videos are generally considered higher quality and get more “hits,” there is a certain egalitarian aspect to the online video, similar to the ability to create and post a Web site and also to that of the time that the mass public could begin printing or owning telephones, televisions, and computers.

Online Video Conversation
While reproducing or simulating primary orality in a digital setting may not be an obvious or necessary goal, it is one that we partially achieve through much of the way we communicate in the current era. In doing so, we replicate some of those factors of primary orality that make it so effective: sound that includes variation in the speaker’s vocal tone, volume, emphasis, and rate; visual that includes the speaker’s gesture and general appearance; and the ability to respond and ask questions in a live, interactive setting. However, as established by the list of communication methods above, we have made substantial advancements in the way that we share information, yet when attempting to conduct a conversation–a two-sided discussion that generally consists of more than a single exchange from each side–at a distance, despite the variety of options, each communication method is less than ideal, requiring the participants to give up some aspect of the features existent in the live, face-to-face conversation.

The online video conversation, however, takes this situation one step further in creating a communicative situation that fully addresses aural, visual, textual, archival, and live interactive elements. I use this term to refer largely to the type of video communication offered by Seesmic, in which an audience member (he or she watching the video) certainly receives the audio, video aspects, and the video is archived (on the hosting site), accessible at any time. The textual element is not fully present. For example, in the case of Seesmic, an “author” could hold up a sign to the screen or even prerecord a video that included title screens and text and then upload the video. However, the draw and nature of Seesmic is immediate and highly communicative. Therefore, Seesmic users do not, generally, upload pre-recorded videos, as it is far too time consuming for an ongoing, almost synchronous conversation. This latter point also addresses this communication method’s offered level of interactivity. Essentially, audience members can video-record their own responses to an initial video (within minutes of the previous post), thus creating an ongoing, interactive video conversation.

So, what this method is lacking (in the list of communication elements) is the ability to quickly and easily create and use online textual messages, including commenting textually on specific points along the video timeline. Also, it is lacking fully live interactive capabilities. However, given the overall situation, it can come close, becoming actually semi-synchronous.

Embedded Online Video Conversation
I use this term to refer specifically to the ability for audience members (viewers of the video) to add textual or video comments within the timeline of an online video, such as with Viddler, where this functionality is included when embedding the video into a blog. In this way, one can comment at certain and exact points in the video timeline. This ability breaks the previously existent limitation of annotating video/audio.

As a video is playing, a viewer can scroll over the timeline and click at a given point, which opens a small window where one can enter a textual comment or, if connected to a camera, add a video comment. Subsequent viewings show the comment as a clickable point on the timeline. As the video plays, textual comments pop-up automatically, while video comments have a small window that pops-up giving the viewer the option to play the comment or not. Additionally, the viewer can scroll over any of the dots to open these small windows while the video is playing.

So, given the discussed list of communicative elements, this method effectively brings together these factors in a more comprehensive manner than any of the other media. However, it falls just sort of fulfilling them completely, since it is not actually a live conversation. That said, it is an ideal example of semi-synchronous communication (see previous blog posts). In that it includes virtually all of the benefits of the synchronous conversation, but also provides textual ability and archivability of the asynchronous situation: a situation not existent in the live conversation.

Communication Graph

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