Communication as crowdsourcing

Communication constitutes reality. Communication is said to be the primary process by which human life is experienced: how we communicate creates and forms our experiences. Accordingly social life consists of dynamic interaction processes rather than stable structures. Therefore the way we communicate is of great interest. Where then do our communication-related habits come from?

We saw communication as a process of senders and receivers. The mass audience was seen as passive receivers and easily influenced by the media. The audience today is very different. Individuals have access to modes of communication that, just a few years ago, were available only for people working inside media channels. Most importantly the mathematical theory of communication, the concept of senders and receivers is not only unhelpful, but has been proven to be plain wrong in human communication!

Two distinct modes of communication have emerged and spread since the invention of the telegraph. The first mode was private point-to-point communication that was meant to connect people. The original telegraph was the classic example. It’s more developed form, the telephone, made synchronous communication between individuals on a global scale one of the defining technologies of the modern society.

The second mode was the public broadcasting of content. These two approaches to communication were advanced significantly by a series of innovations resulting in media technologies being perhaps the most socially disruptive developments of the past century, but the basic division into the two modes of private point-to-point and public broadcasting has remained essentially the same until now.

Thomas Edison filed a patent claim in the autumn of 1888 for a device, which, according to him “does for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear.” The kinetoscope as it was called, carried a long spiral of tiny images that could be viewed in a moving sequence by turning a crank and peering through a magnifying glass. Edison’s vision of this new technology was quite quickly taken over by people who saw motion pictures not as a personal experience but as a publicly broadcasted mass media.

In the US the primary financing for radio and TV broadcast stations came very quickly from airtime used for advertising. In other countries, different models emerged. In Europe radio/TV was funded largely through license fees paid by radio/TV set owners. This model was grounded in the belief that radio/TV is a political voice that should serve the interest of the “people” and not the interest of making a profit.

The broadcasting model of communication was now turned into the property of either advertisers or politicians.

This was because of the inherited way of thinking about people’s actions. We have two major ways of understanding why people behave the way they do. On the one hand, there is the causal explanation. People change because of external forces. People can be influenced, educated, motivated or even forced to change their behaviour. This is the causal thinking of mainstream management theory: I send you a message and you act. I steer you and your use of time.

On the other hand, there is the assumption of agency based on response-ability and responsiveness. Instead of seeing the audience as an undifferentiated, passive mass, we understand the audience as a network of people, forming small groups and larger communities. The commercial and political interest to broadcasting was a result from the belief that the media can mold masses. In contrast to earlier thinking, the society is today seen to consist of numerous differentiated communities, each with own values and interests. All media content is interpreted within the community according to social sense making within the group. The individuals are influenced more by their peers than by media. Meaning is not in the message, but is produced in interaction. Different people will understand what they view and read in very different ways.

A new, third form of communication in the digital, networked world combines broadcasting and point-to-point. The means of broadcasting are today available for individual people. They are not only the property of institutions. The audience for this new form of private broadcasting is not a passive mass, but the emerging, active communities that the individual wants to reach and connect with.

In it’s most basic form, responsive communication involves a three-part relationship: an initial broadcasted gesture from one individual, leaving it free who in the audience acts on the gesture, a voluntary response to that gesture by another, and resulting crowdsourced activity. Meaning here does not reside solely in any one of these parts but in the relationship of all three.

The passive audience view suggested that people are easily influenced by the media. The active audience view thinks that people make active decisions about how to aggregate, and how to respond. The mass society theories subscribed to the passive conception of the audience and public broadcasting. It is time now to subscribe to an active, responsive notion of the audience and the possibility of private broadcasting.

A transformative, third mode of communication is here.


Thank you Robert Friedel, Kenneth Gergen, Stephen Littlejohn, Stowe Boyd, Doug Griffin, Clay Shirky, Kim Weckström and Jeff Jarvis

More on this: confused of calcutta and Using communication tools as a form of “co-presence” (The New York Times). Changing communication patterns.