On Wednesday, November 28, an audience of students and technical communications professionals gathered at Lawrence Technological University (LTU) in Southfield for a panel discussion that continued where our October 2017 program left off on discussing the advantages and drawbacks of face-to-face vs. computer-mediated communication. Because our last panel focused primarily on face-to-face interactions, this panel discussed computer-mediated communication (CMC) which, for many of us, is the dominant form of communication in our professional lives.
The panelists included:
- Maryann Bowen, STC Associate Fellow and Senior Manager of Education and User Experience at Saphran, Inc.
- Steven D. Krause, Professor of Rhetoric and Writing, Eastern Michigan University
- Rich Leazer, Manager, Documentation and Publishing Health Information Technology & Services, at University of Michigan
- Chalice Randazzo, Assistant Professor of Technical Communication and Writing, Eastern Michigan University
Professor Corinne Stavish, Director of the Technical and Professional Communication Program at LTU, moderated the discussion.
Prof. Stavish opened with a story of a man who lived in a small village and underwent several major events that altered the course of his life. When the other villagers tried to draw conclusions about whether those life events would change his fortunes for better or for worse, the man responded each time by simply stating, “maybe so, maybe not…we’ll see.”
This refrain set the stage for the discussion that unfolded. Computer-mediated communication, or CMC, is defined as using a computer or device to communicate with others. And while for many of us it is simply the norm, the panel took a close look at what we are gaining, for better or for worse, and what we also lose through our dependence on CMC.
Pros of CMC
Some of the pros the panelists discussed were that CMC allows us to:
- Collaborate on teams with people in remote locations all over the globe.
- Eliminate our commutes to work.
- Utilize our time more efficiently.
- Achieve a better work/life balance.
- Reduce paper waste.
- Create a reference history of all of the work we do.
- Access information that may be otherwise difficult or impossible to access in person.
- Communicate with groups either asynchronously or synchronously.
Cons of CMC
Some of the cons the panelists discussed were that CMC doesn’t allow us to:
- Stay connected when infrastructure and technical issues get in the way, such as when power goes out, equipment fails, or networks are slow.
- Read the room. With the exception of video, communicating with others through devices causes us to miss the interpersonal cues that we get when we speak face-to-face.
- Overhear. We miss the benefits of hearing other conversations that are going on in the same office or classroom and gain ‘serendipitous’ moments that can lead to breakthroughs or connections with what other individuals or teams are working on.
- Rest. We must (or feel we must) keep up with the constant changes in software and technology along with the expectation that we are always available through our devices.
- Focus. We now have shorter attention spans due to the constant barrage of notifications and information coming through different channels; multitasking often leads to doing things poorly.
Avoiding the Pitfalls
So how do we optimize our experience and utilize the benefits of CMC while doing our best to avoid the pitfalls? The panelists offered some advice:
- Set boundaries. Turn off notifications when you need to focus. Make it clear when you will or will not be available for work-related communication when it is after normal working hours.
- Evaluate how much tech you actually need. Is it truly making your life better or are you using tech for tech’s own sake?
- Understand when it is a better idea to have a face-to-face conversation. Are we hiding behind our devices? Could we do a better job of understanding the value of communicating in person?
- Focus on quality. Think about how you are transmitting messages and make the effort to be an effective communicator. Consider the audience, tone, context, and rhetorical situation for all communications so that your intended meaning is not lost in a text or email.
- Don’t forget about the things that increase your true quality of life. Investing energy where it truly matters helps to increase your overall happiness and well-being.
Are our experiences and understanding of the effects of CMC on humanity similar to the insights we will have 10 years from now? Do we know whether CMC will shape our future for better or for worse? Maybe so, maybe not…we’ll see.
STC-SM extends our most sincere thanks to the panelists and to Prof. Stavish for engaging us in such a thought-provoking discussion. Special thanks to the Technical and Professional Communication program at LTU for co-sponsoring this event!
Suggested reading: Attached to Technology and Paying a Price, by Matt Richtel, The New York Times, June 6, 2010