Considerations of the Evolution of Communication
On April 10, 2016, the price of postage stamps fell for the first time in 97 years (1). Without congressional action to extend its temporary exigent surcharge, the United States Postal Service had to adjust its standard mail pricing, which accounts for 76 percent of its revenues. The financially unstable USPS would continue facing annual billion-dollar revenue declines.
Did this historic event clutter your Twitter feed or appear as a news alert? Probably not. However – billion-dollar revenue declines! That’s significant for an entity that receives no tax dollars (1) to cover operating expenses and is revamping its business to manage the rising costs of international services and the decline of first-class mail, which has decreased in volume every year since its peak in 2001 (2).
Technology and lifestyle changes, exacerbated by the Great Recession (3), have impacted the USPS business model and, more broadly, how we communicate with each other across the globe. Mobile workplaces, online payment systems and social media networks enable people to communicate wherever and whenever they choose, thereby simplifying collaboration and information sharing. Our virtual world allows us to work without boundaries, grow our social networks, engage around the clock and multitask while consuming information from a variety of sources. Today many of us only rely on the USPS to send packages or receive orders from our favorite online suppliers.
While technology and lifestyle changes have created communication efficiencies and connected people on a global level, is it possible that they have also compromised our capacity to articulate genuine sentiments, safeguard our privacy and nurture authentic relationships and partnerships? In other words, with modern communication, are we less discerning about sharing personal information, more productive and better connected, or are we sacrificing our privacy and relationships for the sake of checking items off our to-do lists and maintaining superficial relationships?
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“If I Could Turn Back Time”
Let’s consider how premillennial generations lived and communicated with each other. If you’re like me, you are a product of the ‘70s and ‘80s. You either talked to people face-to-face, sent handwritten letters or scheduled blocks of time to use a landline phone to catch up with friends and family. I remember how excited I was to check our mailbox for letters and cards, play hide-and-seek with neighborhood kids after school and plan weekend activities when talking to close friends on the phone before bedtime. I also remember how much fun it was to pass notes surreptitiously in class and make prank calls to local pizza parlors. Did you ever have a pen pal? The pen pal project was a highlight for me in fifth grade because “Donna” and I shared stories and details about each other in multipage handwritten letters and anxiously awaited our in-person meeting at our pen pal celebration at the end of the school year.
“Where Everybody Knows Your Name”
Today we fill our days with virtual meetings, emails, texts and social media posts. Why get together with friends and neighbors or professional colleagues when you can catch up by text, email or tweet? Have news to share? Take 30 seconds, or do I dare say a full minute, to post a photo or blurb across your social network. Furthermore, who needs to purchase, write and mail a handwritten letter when it’s socially acceptable to express yourself via an electronic medium? Need a birthday, wedding or graduation card? Lucky for you there’s an app for that, and you don’t have to leave your house to purchase, personalize or send your message. Speaking of apps and services, online pen pal websites have changed the communication experience by allowing pals to view pictures and profiles before corresponding. Forget about prank calls as most devices have caller ID and tools to track your whereabouts and interactions. Share information, and it’s disseminated online and is everlasting. I can’t help but think how the “Cheers” theme song “Where Everybody Knows Your Name” has taken on a whole new meaning.
“It’s the End of the World as We Know It”
Smartphones, laptops, wearables and other mobile devices continually shape our communications and engagements. I remember my first encounter with a cellular phone, which in no way resembled the technology of today. At the time, I would never have predicted a mobile society, nor would I have imagined a hand-held device that would alter our organic conversations. How is it that our lengthy conversations about weekend plans or our best neighborhood hiding places would eventually be replaced by a Facebook invite or revealed through an Instagram or Snapchat photo?
“Pop Goes the World”
There’s no doubt that technology and lifestyles have changed how we communicate with each other. In previous decades, communication was predominantly through one-on-one or face-to-face interactions, and people handwrote letters to share news, express feelings and communicate in a private forum. An outing to the post office or mailbox was part of our daily routines. In contrast to the current virtual environment, communication was often labor- and time-intensive, news was slow to disseminate and people were less accessible for engaging.
Contemporary lifestyles and technology have resolved the aforementioned communication issues, yet they have also shaped the type of information we share and how we share it. We’ve filled our lives with so many activities and technological innovations that communication is infrequently face-to-face and is inherently hurried and streamlined – e.g., in a 40-character social media message. I can’t help but think that my excitement about finally meeting Donna would have been different if I had access to view and interact with her on social media before meeting in person. On the flip side, I might have learned everything I needed to know about Donna from social media and skipped the pen pal celebration for a day of texting, streaming music and relaxing by the pool.
Young people today who have never written or received physical letters will never have the experience of rereading those letters in their old age and reminisce about what was or imagine what might have been. Is the immediacy of ephemeral social media a worthy trade-off? What do you think about the evolution of communication and how it has influenced our lives? Will first-class mail go by the wayside, and if so, perhaps you can replace your mailbox with an herb garden?