the toll of many-to-many communications

Let’s assume that we hope to get a response whenever we say something to another person. Because of that desire, we do not feel right unless we respond whenever others address us. These tendencies would naturally arise among social animals.*

But then imagine that it becomes very easy to send one message to many people at once. This has been the case since the rise of email. Instinctively, we are going to experience each message that we receive from a human sender as a bid for our individual attention. If we fail to reply promptly, we are likely to feel bad. We have rejected the bid.

The problem is not the electronic medium or the speed of transmission. To type a message takes at least as much time as turning to someone and saying something. The problem is the simultaneous delivery of the same individual-looking message to multiple recipients. Almost everyone perceives the sheer number of incoming messages as a burden. Failure to respond in a timely way feels uncaring.

Social media feels different to me. Posting something in a forum is like speaking to an audience or an assembly. The speaker doesn’t expect each listener to reply separately, and therefore listeners don’t feel obliged to meet that expectation. The particular source of stress created by email (and its successors) is the ability to deliver one message separately to many people as if we were addressing each one individually, only at a much faster rate.

Please go ahead and email me; I am happy to hear from you. I might even suffer FOMO if you leave me off your messages. The problem is systemic and would require a collective solution.

*I’m pretty sure I read a journalistic article making this point, and citing experts. I have not been able to find it again.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.