A brief history of communication
At some point in the history of mankind we started communicating with each other. Grunts and gestures became words and words became language and so it continued as humans scattered around the globe learned how to effectively communicate with each other. And for a long time we stayed in the early stages of an oral communication system. Over time other things started to develop different forms of image based writings such as Egyptian hieroglyphics and the petroglyphs of North America. But really these were used more in terms of recording information rather than a system of day to day communication.
Then several thousand years ago language became more sophisticated. Actual written languages were born. Now people could record things on primitive versions of paper or animal skin. The difference was that now what was written could actually relay speech. The reader could now know exactly what the writer was trying to say. It was nothing short of miraculous.
However, this was not an easy or a quick process. Writing was a detailed and time consuming exercise. The written language was something really only accessible to a select segment of the wealthy and educated. The masses of people had little or no access to such literature and so the science and art communicating to these masses was enhanced. Mankind began perfecting a system of oral communication. Technically when the first two people began using words to speak with each other the oral communication age began, but since this is a ‘brief’ history of communication we’re going to skip ahead to the time of the Greeks who were the original masters of oral communication.
In fact often the meaning of the term ‘communication’ is often misunderstood. In most cases communication is simply believed to be the transmission of information which is only half right. When in fact, communication in its purest form is a reciprocal function. It must not only be transmitted, but it must be received and in many cases a response is transmitted back and received by the original sender. Imagine standing alone in classroom lecturing to a bunch of empty desks. You are transmitting information, but since there is nothing to receive the information you are not communicating. In the same way, if a radio station is broadcasting a signal where nobody has their radio turned on, communication is simply not happening.
The Greeks understood the obstacles of effective oral communication and sought to overcome them. They perfected the art of oratory and storytelling. To help people remember extremely long pieces of information mnemonic (new-mon-ik) devises such as rhyming schemes were developed such as in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.
Oral communication was such an intrinsic part of life that it also influenced architecture. Acoustically engineered amphitheatres were designed and built to allow speakers to be heard in front of large audiences using acoustic amplification and eventually around the 4th century A.D. the Roman basilica was adopted by the Christian church as a standard model for church design and structure. This is the standard church sanctuary still used today that consists of a large rectangular room with an area on one end that is slightly or dramatically raised. Over time benches were added in the larger area for the congregation as well as a pulpit and/or lectern on the raised portion of the room. Essentially this room was designed for a group of people to sit and be spoken to. It is a room specifically designed for oral communication.
And so society rolled along for roughly another 1,100 years until a man named Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1450. The world would never be the same. It was now possible to mass produce written text. The now famous Gutenberg Bible was printed and suddenly the world was thrust into the age of print communications. Literacy now became something sought after by the common person as print moved its way across the developed world.
It was during this time that the developed world moved into not just print communication, but also mass communication. With improvements of printing presses over the years publishers were the first to be able to send out publications to larger audiences than ever before. And so the world moved on with a society now versed in print and oral communication for another 450 years.
And then at the dawn of the 20th century the radio was invented. Not long after it was moved from a laboratory experiment to a commercial enterprise.
The age of broadcast communication was born. By the time radios began finding their way into homes the newspapers had circulations that literally spanned the globe, but radio had two things newspapers did not: A human voice and the fact that voice was being broadcast live. Now it was possible for radio stations to mass communicate live entertainment and news whenever and as often as they wanted while newspapers were still confined to a daily publication. Radio stations using AM transmitters could literally broadcast over thousands of square miles.
Then in the late 1940’s the television set was moving in mass to American homes and then added a dimension that radio could not. A motion picture could now be instantly broadcasted into thousands and later millions of homes at once. Later that black and white image turned to color which brings us up to the 1990’s with the birth of the Internet and the overwhelming adoption by the developed world.
The Internet brought something that had been missing since the time of oral communications. The ability to immediately respond to the message and essentially brought back a pure system of communication. In many ways the internet has combined the elements of the other communication forms and combined them into a single source. With the expansion of broadband user connection more and more possibilities are opening up. News sites often combine print style journalism with broadcast style journalism by placing hyperlinks in text articles to video clips and package stories. More and more broadcasters are now also offering television series episodes online the day after they are broadcasted. At this point in time we find ourselves in what is considered web 2.0 or the second generation of web development where Static sites are no longer acceptable and user interaction has become a fundamental principle of web applications.
From a communications standpoint, this is an extraordinarily interesting time to live in because right now we have a generation of people who came to adulthood with print being the primary form of communication. We have another that came to age during radio and then another that was raised on television. And now we have the fourth generation that is being raised in the era of the Internet. If that doesn’t mean much to you, think of it in these terms.
It took humankind several thousand years to move from an oral communication mode to a print communication mode. It then took several hundred years to move from print to broadcast radio. Then a few decades to move to television and then a few more decades to move to the Internet. Out of the five primary means of communication humankind has known, three have come into popularity within the last century. But to take that a step further, none of the older methods and technologies of communication have gone away. We’ve just added to them. So what makes this a very unique and often frustrating time of communications is that we have people among us who still use print as their primary form of communication, others still rely on radio, while others rely on television and yet one more group primarily relies on the web. And still others who migrate seamlessly from one media type to the next.
We have become a multi-media society.
A Multimedia Generation…Transcending the Medium
One of the really interesting characteristic of the youth culture is their ability to effortlessly move from one form of communication to another. It’s a mistake to simply say that youth only use the internet or cell phones to communicate. They are the first group to grow up with the internet, but the reality is this generation has matured using all the primary forms of communication.
In school they sit and listen to teachers lecture (oral communication)
- They may not read the daily news, but they do read magazines and books. (print communication)
- They still listen to the radio and watch television (broadcast communication)
- They use the internet extensively (digital communication)
Have you ever had a conversation with someone who is bi-lingual and midway through the conversation they start moving back and forth between the two languages and never seem to realize it? That’s basically how it is with younger generations and their communication styles. A couple of friends may start a conversation in person, continue it by cell phone, ask a couple of questions by text messaging each other and then finish out the conversation by instant messaging each other later that night. For many of us that may seem exhausting to consider, but they don’t view it in terms of switching modes of communication for them it’s simply the way they talk with each other.
I really don’t think I’m that old. But even in my early 30’s I didn’t have an e-mail account until after I had graduated from college. I didn’t own a computer until I was a senior in college. In fact when I graduated from college in the late 90’s with a broadcast journalism degree I found out a few short years later that wasn’t going to get me very far for long. The recording decks, video tapes and editing machines were changing. The video editing system that was state of the art and cost $40,000 when I started college could be out performed by a computer based non-linear digital editing system I picked up for $4,000 two years after I graduated. The editing system I have these days, makes my first digital editor look like a paper weight. I had to completely relearn my craft and go back for more education if I wanted to stay employable in the ever changing world of technology.
But even for several years after I got my undergraduate degree I didn’t own a cell phone. It wasn’t until I started spending an extraordinary amount of time in a car that I felt that it became necessary. These days…well…times have changed.
I no longer drive to work. Instead I telecommute. I live in a rural area where DSL and cable internet are not available so I subscribe to a satellite high speed internet service. Because my work requires me to keep in touch with dozens if not hundreds of people from all over the globe managing all that contact information can be taxing. But no worries, with a free download of “Plaxo” I can instantly send out bulk requests to all my contacts to update their account information. They update the form and hit ‘submit’ and instantly their information is updated in my contact list. If they’re also a Plaxo user, there’s no need to send an e-mail. It’ll update it on its own. Since even the laptop is bulky to carry around all the time, I also have a Blackberry cell phone that allows me to browse the web and check e-mail 24/7. Since the Blackberry syncs with my Outlook account, it pulls all that recently updated calendar and contact information of all my contacts directly into my phone. If I’m on the road and I need to use the laptop to get online, I can just slide a broadband wireless card into the pc slot and get a broadband signal anywhere I get a cell phone signal.
Yes, times have definitely changed.
I remember going to rock concerts when I was a teenager. It never failed during a power ballad hundreds of cigarette lighters would suddenly come to life held high by their owners across the darkened arena. These days the cigarette lighters have been replaced by cell phones. These days luminous orange glow of the cigarette lighters has been replaced by the bluish glow of cell phone screens. Go to any concert and you’ll literally see hundreds of cell phones being held high either taking pictures or recording video. These images and videos can then be e-mailed to friends and can literally end up on the internet before the concert is over.
In many ways the technology itself is becoming engrained in youth culture. As mobile phone technology advances more and more features are being added to something that easily fits into a small pocket. Now consumers can purchase phones that have broad band internet capability, MP3 players, still photos and video recording and oh yeah…you can also talk on it. What the Swiss did for the pocket knife, technology developers are doing for mobile communication.
There are various other kinds of products that youth culture is immersed in and really to understand the youth, you need to also understand the technology because it is this technology that in many ways is shaping their world view. From iPods and digital cameras to video games that allows gamers to connect and compete against each other over the net. Technology is to a point that a person can be connected to others almost anywhere at anytime. This is a dramatic shift in the ability to communicate as a people. The point that must be remembered is that this is the first time in human history that we’ve had this much access to connect with the global population.
Teen Communication Patterns…Lifestyles & Networks
How do these people communicate among themselves? This is one of the first things people need to ask themselves when facing a new audience. We wouldn’t consider going to a foreign country without knowing the language or having access to a translator. We also wouldn’t consider talking to a pre-school class in the same way we would talk to the local rotary club. So you shouldn’t consider reaching a youth audience if you don’t know their language. Different groups have different inside lingo. Words have implied meaning that in many ways differ from the original meaning. Churches have their own lingo, and teens certainly have their own lingo. But communication patterns go beyond simple lingo and slang.
There are often rules to follow that may or may not be written down. Some things that are common to us may be an issue of etiquette like not talking with your mouth full or to be quiet in church. But, then there are other things like when is it too late to call someone else? Or. What topics should not be discussed publicly? And now in today’s technology engrossed culture, what form of media is more suitable for discussing which topic?
Every group of people has some type of social structure. These can vary depending on location and culture, but ultimately there will be some definable level of status. Teens are no different; in fact in many cases their social order may be much more complex. For most youth, social patterns emerge from their school environment. Most all of us have strong memories that date back to high school; some we treasure, some we’d rather forget. (Admit it; you had a lunch table that you always sat at with all the same friends.) But regardless of your memories, undoubtedly there are lasting impressions that stick with you. School is the primary location for interaction with peers. And within the context of school there are different groups or “tribes” that exist. Some play nicely together and others do not. There are “in” crowds and there are “fringe” crowds. There are teens who treat others with respect and teens who do not treat others well. There are groups competing to be on top and there are groups of youth just trying to keep their heads above water.
But regardless of a group’s status, they still generally emerge from the same culture. They attend the same school, they go to the same games, they listen to the same music and they watch the same television shows and movies. As a result the way they communicate with each other is often very similar because their points of reference are very similar.
One of the interesting things about the current youth culture is their ability to transfer a single conversation across various media, but within that context what is and isn’t discussed online is not always clear. Typically with blogging sites, youth have a pretty extensive knowledge of the blogs of their peers. Whether or not they constantly read them is irrelevant because the information is simply accessible to the masses. The end result is that the blogosphere can become an open book for the inner lives of students. So typically what you’ll find is a scattered collection of information that can range from a summary of current events, song lyrics and vented frustrations about non-personal things and people who typically remain outside the blogosphere…otherwise known as grown ups. However, youth often avoid getting too personal on a blog site simply because they don’t want the whole world to read it.
It is usually at this point when a shift in communication will occur. Typically, the more personal the conversation the more personal the communication style will become. A conversation or issue that is too personal for ‘everyone’ may get discussed by e-mail or instant messaging. A conversation that is even more personal may shift to a telephone call or a face to face conversation. However, it may also be noted that conversations that are not so personal may work their way through various forms of media without a conscious effort. If a teen simply doesn’t care if others know about a certain issue or conversation then the conversation my travel indiscriminately across the varying media.
Understanding Teen Values
It is the understanding of the values of teen culture which allows youth pastors to further their holistic understanding of youth culture and as a result have a better understanding of individual teens. Historically, I try to keep a pretty close tab on the personal lives of my youth. I read their blogs, I e-mail them, I talk to them both in groups and in private. Though I may not always know the intimate details of what is specifically going with their individual lives, I’ve got a pretty good idea if things are going well or if something is wrong. It’s the point that I discover that something is wrong that I work to find out what that something is.
One thing my experience has shown is that teenagers must feel like they can trust an adult before they’ll feel free to talk openly with them. There are obviously different levels of trust that different teens require before opening up. Some teens will open up within a matter of days, others within months and still others may take years.
This isn’t a manual on how to be a youth leader, but I want to share an example of how this can play out in real life. A few months ago I was leading a worship service and I realized on of my youth had broken down in tears midway through the service. Her friends were gathered around her doing their best to comfort her. As soon as the service was over she came over and gave me a big hug followed by, “I need to talk to you.”
I spent the next half hour doing a counseling session instead of helping the band tear down.
Turns out her life had been turned upside down a couple of weeks earlier. The service had hit her hard and she needed someone to talk to. I had already established a level of trust with her because I had met her on her territory without an agenda. I had a decent understanding of her life and social patterns and I was willing to sit down and talk with her at the moment she was ready. As far as I know, I’m the only adult she’ll talk to.
Another thing about youth is that when they are ready to talk to you, they are ready to talk to you at that moment. You have a window of opportunity. If you miss it, you are going to have to wait for the next window. Depending on the youth, depends on the size of the window. If whatever the subject is important to them, then it needs to be important to you. The lives of teenagers can revolve around romantic relationships, social status, academia or a host of other subjects. A melodramatic reaction to bad grade on a test or a fight with a girlfriend can be seen as overblown to adults, but it is important that their value system is often based around these things. To them a bad test grade isn’t just a bad grade; it can signify the possibility of not being eligible for a scholarship or worse reflection on an already poor self image. So a good point to remember is that just because it isn’t important to you, doesn’t mean it isn’t important to them. Keep an ear open for comments that may tip you off to something such as this.
As I shared in the technology section, over the past few years I’ve become more and more connected. From my laptop to my Blackberry, if I can get a signal then people can get in touch with me. However, this sometimes infringes on my desire for privacy and the ability to always be available creates a certain level of stress. The gadget of choice may start to feel more and more like a digital leash than a means of freedom to roam while working. I have learned that I need to be disciplined and know when to turn the thing off.
Teens on the other hand view the connectivity in different terms. While research shows that a large percentage of youth are aware that their generation can be sometimes be seen as zombies that are too connected, the same group will be reluctant to give up their cell phones.
Again this takes us back to a generation of people that has never not been connected. They have always had internet access and they have always had cell phones. Unlike older generations, in many cases they simply do not have a world view that exists without these items. To them, they are necessities for life. When asked why they own cell phones in particular, the number one response is always that cell phones make them feel secure.
Because of this, many teens feel no sense of being over connected. Being connected is as normal to life as breathing. There’s also very few boundaries placed on when it is or isn’t appropriate to call or send a text message. I hear stories from my youth about getting messages and phone calls in the middle of the night from their friends. Because this would cause me to throw my cell out the window I question why they don’t just turn off their phones. Dismayed, they can’t understand why I would consider turning it off a viable option.
Luckily, they leave me out of those conversations…