Tubes and Bubbles: Communication Channels

Do you ever struggle to know whether to text, email, or call? Do type out texts and delete? Have you ever hit send and then immediately regretted it? Have you ever decided to set up a phone call because talking is easier than writing? Or maybe you’ve felt disheartened to be physically separate from someone with only a selection of screens to simulate their presence?

If any of that is familiar, then you’ve felt how channels shape communication.

Channels are a key element of communication and directly impact what happens in our exchanges with others.

Channels are an odd mix of tubes and bubbles — and there are a lot of them if you think about it: Texts. Phone calls. Email. Carrier pigeon. Twitter. Zoom. All weirdly similar in that they help us connect to one another. They enable communication, yet are all completely different.

What is a Channel?

Channels are mediums or modes of interacting. There’s no limit to the number or types of channels, or to the forms that channels may take.

We often associate channels with technology (texting, email), mass forms (radio, cable tv), internet platforms (Facebook, Tinder), or media (books, vinyl records) but channels are not exclusively what we think of as “technology.” Writing a letter, for example, is a channel. Stone tablets and The Pony Express used to be channels.

Channels extend well beyond screens and physical objects.

Something to keep in mind is that just talking with someone face-to-face is a channel, even if we might not necessarily think about it as such — it’s imperative that we do. Despite how technological tools have permeated our lives, we spend an awful lot of time just talking to other humans. Face-to-face communication makes certain outcomes more likely, just as every technology and interface does as well.

I don’t valorize face-to-face communication as necessarily somehow a more authentic form, wistful of a time gone by. But I also believe there’s always a place for direct human connection.

Channels, technological or not, are just different ways to connect. The outcome matters far more than the channel. Channels are just the medium through which we are able to connect; they matter, but they aren’t everything we sometimes make them out to be.

Tubes and Bubbles

We closely associate communication channels with technology — which itself takes on many forms. Hardwares, softwares, infrastructure, digital interfaces, and platforms are all essential elements of communication channels. It’s within the confines of the walls built from those tools that human conversations take place — forming the where and the how of interaction.

Channels are tubes of interaction, stretched thinly into magical (often electric) signals which blossom into interface bubbles at either end.

All communication takes place in a channel. It’s just that the walls feel different depending on which channel we’re using.

To complicate all this business of channels even further, we don’t only use one channel to communicate, even with the same person. During the day, with my partner for example, I might talk in person, on the phone, with FaceTime, text, and chat. Humans are multi-channel animals. We cross channels with people and communicate with them in multiple ways. We have multiple conversations at the same time. We’re adaptable in that sort of way.

Communication can’t be contained by a single channel. The meaning we draw and form — and the relationships we form — goes beyond any one channel of communication.

We inadvertently reference channels all the time in our everyday language. “Oh, I called them.” “They sent me an email, can you believe that?” “Hey did you see this new app where you do such and such?” And recently, channels of communication have been given a front seat given the serious spike in interactions on Zoom, FaceTime and the like. These new connections are both work-related and well beyond.

The punctuated influx of these new sorts of connections has only intensified our realizations of what is possible and what is lost when we’re disconnected physically yet still must find ways to connect. It also reinforces that we cannot get around our need to communicate to build meaning, accomplish tasks, and create and nurture relationships.

If we traced the human history of communication channels all the way back — an archeology of sorts — we’d find evidence of the boundary-pushing human thinking and the evolution of ingenuity. All these ways to communicate came from somewhere.

In the beginning, there was raw speech and basic language. The complexities bubbled up later. Eventually there were objects — cave paintings, smoke signals, rock and stone inscriptions, scrolls from skin and paper, handwritten books. All elemental forms of media. With objects came permanence. But message and vehicle were tied together. Eventually we came up with ways to reproduce and replicate communication via the printing press and other industrializations.

Channels evolved rapidly when people got serious about transmission, which explains our collective disposition toward tying transmission and communication together so closely. Transmission, the electrification of communication, and later its digitization made things move even more quickly over time. Communication has grown lighter and faster.

Media historian James Carey talks about how the telegraph is an inflection point in the human history of communication channels because the telegraph was when humans separated communication content from the movement of physical messages (aka transmission). Prior to the telegraph a physical object had to be carried from A to B for information to arrive and connection to be felt. “Messages from invisible sources, or what some people think of as progress.” Information could be spread wider, more quickly, and the arrival of information or content was no longer tied to physical objects.

Eventually we got to YouTube, Zoom, Twitch, and SnapChat and continue to have lamentations of technology as a substitute for “real” human interaction and note their overall detrimental contribution to human functionality. It’s supposedly because of technology that we find ourselves less connected, more polarized, and hobbled by a host of new techno-pathologies and social psychoses, which we very well may be.

But there’s no escape.

Some gnashing of teeth about technology is likely deserved. Technology is clearly a problem for our slightly advanced monkey brains, but don’t fall into the trap that technology is isolating. There’s nothing magical about communication turning digital that makes it inherently repulsive rather than attractive.

It’s not the technology we’re addicted to, it’s the human at the other end.

Every Channel Shapes Differently

“We shape our tools and, thereafter, our tools shape us” Father John Culkin wrote — a quote widely attributed to Marshall McLuhan.

Channels, technological and not, give shape and rise to the interactions that unfold within it. The romanticism of sending a letter is replaced with the speed of a video call. Channels are a tube of interaction with interactive features at either end. This is the bubble part. The features available to us partly govern how we are able to connect.

Channels are differently shaped containers enabling certain things to happen. Think for example, how a video call is different from a phone call, text, or email.

Every channel has a shape and is its own little tube-space for interaction. With it come its own challenges, pitfalls, and potential benefits. Tim Kreider writing in the New York Times notes how “the effect two disembodied voices taking counsel in the ether” on a phone call can allow for a more direct, intense, emotional, present conversation while simultaneously inhibiting the posturing, invective and unintentional escalation of many online exchanges. He goes on to correctly observe “the treacherous flattening of tone for which email is notorious.” No one ever had to add “:)” or “jk” or “/s” after something said out loud.

He’s absolutely correct.

Certainly though, we should acknowledge all the ways that technological platforms allow us to connect and collaborate that simply aren’t possible when we’re talking face to face or sending letters back and forth or speaking as disembodied voices in the ether. Each channel has beneficial outcomes.

Think about the challenges just associated with text messaging, for example. Texting is one of the most widely used forms of communication. It has an almost natural predisposition to brevity which often leads to wild interpretation or a suffocating-like inability to adequately explain things. Long texts can be overwhelming. Difficult conversations are hard to have in such an asynchronous state. The challenges go on and on. So do the benefits. Texting allows me to stay in touch with more people. We can have group conversations that we otherwise wouldn’t, and we’re able to send funny gifs to one another.

Relationships can get trapped, comfortably or not, in certain channels of communication. We have friends we text, other people we call, and Skype calls with co-workers. Habitualness can be difficult to shake.

The examples of how channels shape communication are endless.

Channel Questions and Considerations

Channels bring many vexing questions. For example, what’s the right channel to use given a particular communication goal? How can you switch channels if you find yourself stuck in a communication rut? (This is a more difficult question.) Is the channel synchronous or asynchronous or somewhere in between? Ultimately, you want to know, is the channel you’re using the best bet with respect to your intended goals?

Considering your channel is a key part of thinking about your communication. For example, how synchronous the channel is matters for how the conversation will go — not as much as what you are actually saying, but it does matter. If you have to explain a lot of detail or need to talk about sensitive topics, a channel that allows for more free flowing, personal conversation such as in-person or phone is likely your best choice. If you need to communicate information directly, specifically, and tersely, text or email might be a better option.

Really thinking about the channels you’re using and how well they enable your goals can only help.

Each channel has its own shape, it’s own rules, and it’s own adaptive behaviors. And channels for communication are always changing and evolving. Human behavior follows — new possible connections and new possible mayhem. So it goes at scale and so it goes individually. Tubes of connection and bubbles of interactivity, that’s what channels are.