How easy it is to communicate today (and how little we think about how it is so easy)

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telegraph
A telegraph delivery person in Birmingham, AL in 1914 (Wikipedia). I received my job offer the same way in December 1978 in Salisbury, Rhodesia

This morning, I completed the first half of reserving an award ticket for our 19 (to be 20) year old son from Canada to Cape Town, SA, in business class for next December. It took some advance travel planning knowledge, a key human call centre conversation and some online gymnastics to secure a scarce airline points award ticket right over the Christmas holidays, and is another piece in the puzzle for a family vacation there next winter (or summer, depending on your hemisphere).

While this travel will take us to some memory-lane places including Zimbabwe, where I lived for a while in 1978-80, the communications experience will be entirely different.

When I set out for Africa as a young adult some 38 years ago, the telephone, when you could find it, was prohibitively expensive except in life and death situations (and yes, my mother used it to call me when my father died and I needed to return home for his funeral). Otherwise, you might use a telegram (I received my job offer locally that way) or most commonly, you would put a written letter in the mail and hope it reached its destination several weeks later.

There were news wire services, of course, but these were also cumbersome and expensive and most people at the receiving destination would only receive a sliver of selected stories from their local media. (This was part of my job at the Bulawayo Chronicle — I reviewed wire stories, edited out names like “Robert Mugabe” and “Joshua Nkomo” and if the topics were sensitive, we would send the copy to military censors — at least before there was a ceasefire, settlement, and the British arrived to resume colonial authority in the transition to Zimbabwe’s independence.)

In other words, personal one-on-one communication was scarce, expensive, slow and difficult. And communication through intermediaries, such as the media, was somewhat faster, but definitely curated and provided through gateholder services.

Compare things today. You can send a text instantaneously, converse via video link within seconds, and sort through any number of personal and media sources with seemingly limitless content. There are perhaps a few places where this communication isn’t so easy or cheap — but even the most remote places in the world now have cellular or satellite phone links, and the communal solar-powered cell phone in third-world villages serves the purposes of a telegraph station for people who would have been totally out of touch with the rest of the world previously.

This increased and improved communication comes at a cost, of course. I think there were some real advantages for my personal development and growth into adulthood to be truly disconnected from my parents and siblings. Half way around the world some decades ago, I needed to think for myself and find my own way. But I doubt most of us would want to go back to the olden days.

It also redefines our marketing approaches and models.

For example, certainly great word-of-mouth remains the best business tool available for building your business reputation, but today, the positive or negative feedback is virtually instantaneous, and it can extend far beyond the immediate circles who might care the most (and for them, it is magnified with impact and responsiveness through social media.) So if you screw up, you will find the bad news spreads really rapidly.

Conventional gate-keeper media has also become less important as you develop your own focused communication and narrow-casting capacities. You can set and control your webpage and social media content and you don’t have to receive permission from a publisher or television network to produce your own book or video.

These factors also make it more challenging if you wish to scale the summit by accessing media/influencers and plugging into the gatekeepers.

There is some good news for traditionalists in all of this change. The foundations really haven’t changed that much. The basics about how to create and nurture great word of mouth reputations are still the same. Cultures and values, while easier to access, remain quite traditional. The diversity of the world is simply easier and quicker to access, which means I can hardly wait for the year to roll around and for us to be exploring in Africa.

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