The Democratization of Communication

Not long ago, our communication through technology was relatively limited. With phone calls, the public could make general one-to-one contact. Radio and tv hosts could connect to the masses, and businesses and governments could reach the masses through those same avenues. The fireside chats, a weekly brief given by President Franklin D. Rosevelt from 1933 to 1934, was simply a use of a medium (radio) for one person to reach the minds of many. In terms of simply using a medium available to him, this isn’t terribly unlike Donald Trump’s unsophisticated use of twitter during his presidency to communicate to his base and the American people.

Franklin D Rosevelt in 1933. Image Courtesy of WikiCommons.

Up until the era of the internet, this ability to communicate to masses of people was largely limited to those with some sort of power, economic or political. The technology that assisted communication endeavours of everyday people was limited to the telephone, and one-to-one communication.

A model of this style can be seen below. Forgive the roughness of the model, and the fact that this particular one isn’t very useful until it has others to be contrasted against. Just note the fact that while the message communicator has lines to its whole network, they only can call people one at a time. This limits the capacity for information to be disseminated throughout the network.

Of course human ingenuity found a pretty efficient way to disseminate information even with the limited capacity of one to one calling in terms of technology.

Consider the weird “Phone-Tree” I used to stare quizzically at on my parent’s fridge. A phone tree is a means of allowing a message to travel through a network more efficiently than one person calling everyone in the network with the message. In the phone tree days, one person would call a few people with an important piece of information, and they’d all call three or more people with the information, and so on and so forth. The structure of the model below depicts a phone tree and the responsibility and connections between each actor. Note that this is the first stage, the original message communicator is only able to call one of their three connections and begin the dissemination of the information.

Now of course this system reduces the weight of the responsibility of the message communicator. They don’t have to call every name on the list, just a few, and the pre-arranged structure of the phone tree takes case of the rest. But the phone tree isn’t just more efficient because it distributes the responsibility more evenly. It actually increases the capacity of communication by the number of lines active at a given time. Admitted, the first step above doesn’t have this feature, but watch what happens each step in terms of the number of active lines at once.

Stage Two: 2 active lines of communication. Message reach of 3.

Stage Three: 4 active lines of communication. Message reach of 7.

Stage Four: 6 active lines of communication. Message reach of 12

Stage Five: 8 active lines of communication. Message reach of 21

The phone tree model allows for the number of active lines of communication to grow, and therefore the reach of the message grows with it. The system is a pretty efficient way to transmit information through a network if the only technological capacity for communication each node has is one to one.

As you can imagine, in practice this probably wasn’t as efficient as it promises to be in theory. Think of the ruckus that missed calls and lazy links in the chain probably caused back in these days. That’s without even considering the ‘broken telephone’ effect.

I spent many summers in university helping to run a youth camp at Nipissing University for indigenous children from all over Ontario. We’d play the game broken telephone, I’m sure you’ve probably played it yourself. If you haven’t, basically you sit in a circle and one person starts a message that gets whispered from ear to ear around the circle until it returns to them, often completely and totally different from the message they sent out.

The message behind the game is that the more links in the chain, the more likely it was that the message that was created by the first player would be distorted in its journey.

Anyways. The ability to communicate with the masses, to reach many minds at once still eluded the public even with the clever, if not perfect, structure of the phone tree.

But with the internet we have absolutely democratized this ability. Anyone can hop on twitter, facebook, or instagram and reach people from all over the world in an instant.

Take instagram live, a broadcast feature that allows users to broadcast live video to their networks. One user can get on the platform, record a video with their message, and that is broadcast live to all of their network. This is of course, much more efficient than a multi-stage phone tree, and eliminates the opportunity for the message to change between receivers. Not everyone will necessarily tune into a broadcast and get the information, but the communication capacity itself is certainly there. This model also demonstrates the way tv and radio communications would look.

Now, granted, you have to build up a reputation online if you want a following. Things like Search Engine Optimization, the timing of posts, the connectivity of your network and the quality of what’s being communicated are all major factors on if you’ll gain traction, as is luck. But even without the guarantee of masses to communicate to, and no insurance against screaming into the void, we are at least provided the tools to reach the minds of many.

Even with all the flaws that come with social media, including vitriol and the spread of ignorance and misinformation, I’m glad that type of power is in the hands of the people.

During these difficult times of social distancing and isolation in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen all sorts of clever uses of social media platforms, including challenges to help others stay fit, sharing musical talents, and the spread of vital public health education like wildfire in the online realm.

It’s important to remember how lucky we are to have these capabilities, to reach out and be heard, even when we’re alone.


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