The first communication method we ever learn is the interaction between ourselves as infants and our caregivers (just to cover the possibility of a parent, foster parent, day care worker, orphanage employee, etc).
They speak to us, hold us, and in general take care of us while we cry, burp, laugh, and gurgle in response. The communication is symmetric: there is a give and take, and it all happens “in real time”.
Eventually we learn how to read and write, and the possibility of communicating asymmetrically becomes possible – the ability to communicate our thoughts, and receive others’ communications, at the leisure of the recipient.
Asymmetric communication is wonderful – it’s how we learn of ancient peoples, news stories from around the world, etc. But it has a major drawback, too.
Because asymmetric communication takes less effort on the part of the communicator, they can refuse to engage with their audience in a focused fashion. Indeed, that is the benefit of being able to write: being able to reach an audience without having to focus on them while you are talking.
However, because it is unfocused, and because it is easy, we can develop a preference for communicating on our own terms, which can lead to a loss of community and relationship and a creation of a narcissism (that even metastaticize into paranoia) in which we believe we are the best thing that ever happened to world, no one else matters, and face-to-face, or even microphone-to-earpiece conversations become a thing of the past. We can, instead, become hermitized into either our own worlds, or into virtual “communities” in which we adopt pseudonyms, speak in anonymity, and feel no concern over our audience’s feelings, thoughts, or interests.
I can see this as a problem with tools like facebook. Yes, it is wonderful to be able to keep-up with friends and family far flung in this modern era. To know what they are thinking and doing just with a click of the mouse. But how many of those “friends” are truly people we would want to spend time with or have a symmetric conversation?
Certainly this is also true of environments like LinkedIn – whereas some people only truly connect with those they know (and know well), others connect with whomever they can, and other connect with those have a “reason” to connect with .. but might not know “well” (personal improvement, “street cred”, ego boosting, sales/work potential paths, etc).
Services like Klout play to this overt self-interest we have in the modern era of self-branding.
The problem with symmetric communication is that it is harder – it takes time, you cannot multitask, and the person you engage with has to also be interested. You have to pay attention to them, and hope they pay attention to you in response.
In the modern, technology-driven world we live in, things that take time and effort are not as valued as the quick solution: we’d rather microwave than crock pot; we’d rather txt than call; we’d rather IM than email (or email than IM).
There is no going back to the way things were – and I wouldn’t want to even if we could: the way things are now is [in gestalt] far better than they used to be … or at least not worse (yesteryear had their problems that we’ve merely replaced/upgraded).
You can see communication asymmetry affecting our towns and communities – how many of us know our neighbors? Of those we “know”, how many are “wave at”, how many “smile at”, how many “say ‘hi’ to”, how many we would eat a hot dog with, how many we would invite into our home?
Symmetric communication needs to be made a larger focus of our busy, hectic, asymmetric lives – I’d wager that it would reduce our busyness and make our lives a lot less hectic if it took a larger role.